Snow Day Fun

snow cardinalTuesday I found myself with some unexpected free time.  Due to a weather forecast of 4-8″ of snow, food pantry clients had been rescheduled to another day, so I did not have to volunteer.  I assumed, however, because of the forecast that my kids would be home from school for the day.  It did snow all day, but the temperature never dipped below freezing, so nothing stuck to the roads.  The kids only had a two hour delay (sorry guys!) and I didn’t have to volunteer.  What to do with this unexpected gift?!  I decided to spend the day going through a cookbook my brother and sister in law gave me for Christmas, entitled Smokehouse Ham, Spoon Bread, & Scuppernong Wine:  The Folklore andscuppernong Art of Southern Appalachian Cooking, by Joseph E. Dabney.

When I initially started thinking about food insecurity and how to assist people who were hungry, one of the first ideas I had was to look to the past to see how folks used to cook, especially during hard times, like the Great Depression.  Prior to the Great Depression the United States also lacked the societal safety nets we have today, so people suffering from poverty really were on their own to survive.  After a bit more research, I learned that not everyone cooked and ate the way I assumed.  My notion of how women 100-125 years ago cooked and provided food for their families was based on a rural society, where there were little work opportunities for women outside the home and most families had enough land on which grow produce and/or keep some livestock.  After reading How the Other Half Ate, by Katherine Leonard Turner, I learned that urban dwelling women approached cooking and feeding their families very differently than rural women, and as the title suggests, different social classes cooked and ate differently as well.

Additionally, I came to realized that cooking like rural women from the past requires a great deal of time.  Initially I didn’t think this would be a problem for most of the people today who suffer from food insecurity, as I believed them to be unemployed.  After all, that is what many politicians and people in the media would have you believe.  I have since learned from my reading and volunteering, that many people who are food insecure are also employed, sometimes working two and three jobs, and therefore do not have an abundance of time to cook from scratch.  Cooking from scratch also requires certain implements and appliances that the food insecure may not own, like large pots and pans, a multiple burner stove or an oven.

With all that said, I do still think there are lessons to be learned from old cookbooks and food traditions of the past, which is why I read old cookbooks and historical accounts of how and what people ate.  This particular cookbook, although not old as it was originally published in 1998, contains the result of research and numerous interviews with old timers conducted by the author.  It is perhaps more an historical account with recipes than it is a cookbook.  The geographical location this book discusses, southern Appalachia, has historically been and still is, one of the poorest areas of the United States.  I was very curious to see what these hardscrabble people ate and how they prepared it and to determine if I could learn something from their practices that I could pass on to people in my community who are struggling today

One of the first themes that struck me was that they ate what was available wild in their environment, when it was available.  Some of this practice will not be very practical today.  We live in more populated areas with less open spaces, so foraging off the land will not work as well today.  Additionally, we have mostly lost the knowledge of what is edible, growing wild in our wild-strawberrybackyard or local woods, but it is there.  There is a group in Philadelphia, The Wild Foodies of Philly, whose members forage in the city and there is a global organization called Falling Fruit, whose website contains an interactive map of where people are urban foraging.  Similarly, I can remember as a young girl picking wild strawberries and blackberries, winter cress, persimmons, beach plums and black walnuts, all of which were eaten by my family.  Recently someone gave me some paw paws from a nearby tree growing in a nature preserve and my husband has picked and we have eaten morels and other mushrooms growing in our woods. (A note about gathering wild mushrooms–I am not advocating for anyone to pick and consume a wild mushroom without first taking a class in mycology or going foraging with someone very knowledgeable in wild mushrooms.  Some varieties can make you sick, but others can kill you quite quickly.  Unless you can tell the difference with certainty do not consume foraged mushrooms!)  And almost everyone has dandelions growing in their yard!  I often wonder if the people who spend money on herbicides to get rid of dandelions are sometimes the same people who spend money to buy dandelion greens in Whole Foods.

In addition to wild plants, the mountain people of Appalachia supplemented their diet by hunting wild animals, like rabbit, deer, raccoon, squirrel, opossum and turkeys.  Not everyone today is interested in hunting or has the land available to them on which to huntwild turkeys.  Likewise, our tastes have changed so that few could imagine eating opossum, but I know many families locally, who still supplement their diet with venison, rabbit, wild fowl and small birds, like dove.  The Chester County Food Bank participates in the Pennsylvania program, Hunters Share the Harvest, where hunters can share extra venison with food banks.  I just had a client ask me last week if we had any venison.

With regard to produce, they ate or preserved to eat later what was in season, growing in their garden.  Not many people can or preserve food today, but it was a necessary way to stretch the summer bounty into the winter, when produce was scarce.  Today, eating seasonally is still just as wise as it was in the past, even if you do not have a garden.  Produce in season is going to be cheaper, but also will taste better and be healthier, since it was allowed to ripen fully before being picked.  Even if you do not know how to can produce, many fruits and vegetables can easily be frozen, so if one has access to freezer space, freezing summer produce can be an economical way to enjoy summer’s bounty in the middle of winter.

In conjunction with eating what was available, the people of Appalachia wasted very little.  When they slaughtered an animal or killed wild game, they used almost all parts of the animal in one way or another.  Additionally, many plant products we commonly dispose of today were in the past used in recipes, like corncob jelly and pickled watermelon rind.  While I understand that many of these historical cooking practices are not practical for today, we can take away the lesson of reducing waste in our cooking.  For instance, I just recently purchased a rotisserie chicken for a dip recipe.  Once I had picked the meat off the bones, I put the bones into a pot with a quartered onion, covered it with water and simmered it for about an hour.  When it was done I removed the chicken bones and onion and strained the remaining liquid.  This produced 4 cups of chicken stock, which only cost me my time (mostly unattended cooking) and a few cents for the onion.  Abaconnother easy practice, which reduces waste and creates cooking stock, is to save parts of produce you are not going to eat, like the end of a carrot or broccoli stalks, in the refrigerator.  Once you have a decent amount of this vegetable matter, follow the same steps as with making chicken stock. This process will result in vegetable stock at no extra cost.  Finally, I save most of the fat rendered from frying bacon.  I put it in a container in my refrigerator and use small amounts not only for frying foods, like potatoes, but also to flavor braising water for vegetables when I don’t have any stock on hand.

I thoroughly enjoyed my snow day on Tuesday, sitting with a cup of tea and a cookbook.  While I did not grow up in Appalachia, I did grow up in the country and the people and food ways described in this book spoke to me and reminded me of my childhood.   Unfortunately so much of what I was remembering from my childhood is gone.  The wild strawberries and hedgerows of blackberry canes are not there anymore.  Very little, if any, winter cress grows inblackberry the fields due to herbicides or planting practices.  My grandfather, sharer of persimmons, has long since passed away.  Like the memories of my youth, passing down the practice of cooking from scratch and cooking methods used to stretch the meager food resources of a family have largely disappeared too, especially as busy parents rely more and more on processed, already prepared, packaged food.  Unfortunately, we are losing more than we realize when we give up these practices.


The More Things Change. . .

how other half ateI recently read the book, How the Other Half Ate:  A History of Working Class Meals at the Turn of the Century, and attended a talk by the author, Katherine Leonard Turner.  As someone who is interested in what we eat and why, as well as being a history geek, I found the topic enlightening, but not in the ways I might have first imagined.  I approached the book with the romantic notion that at the turn of the 19th century most women cooked everything from scratch and that this knowledge of how to cook helped working class families survive with meager resources.  What I discovered upon reading the book was that this notion was not the reality at all, especially in urban areas.  The situation for working class families at the turn of the 19th century was not unlike that of those struggling to get by today.  How the working class ate and society’s response to their eating habits was also remarkably similar to the eating patterns of the food insecure and attitudes of today toward those patterns.

At the turn of the 19th century most women of the working class were not homemakers, particularly in an urban setting.  They were working.  If they were not working in a factory, they were doing piecework in their home.  The money they earned from their work was necessary to help maintain their families’ subsistence.  Consequently, they lacked the time required to cook meals which required several hours of preparation.  Additionally, many of these households lacked items needed to prepare meals from scratch.  Some households lacked the necessary cooking implements, while others lacked the money for the food itself or the fuel with which to cook the food.

The lack of time and resources these women and their families experienced caused them to turn to alternative ways to feed themselves and their families.  Working class families at the turn of the 19th century ate a surprisingly large amount of their meals outside of the home.  Family members who worked in factories often purchased the equivalent of today’s fast food  from a pushcart or went to a local pub, where for a nickel beer they could get a free lunch.  Not only did families eat food prepared outside the home, but they rarely ate together, due to the varied work schedules of all the working family members.

Similarly, the social reformers of the late 19th/early 20th century held some of the same opinions voiced today with regard to the plight of these working class families.  They believed that wives and mothers in these households were neglecting their families by not cooking and allowing their family members to rely on cheaper food prepared by someone else.  They counseled these women to spend a few more hours a day cooking and cleaning, suggesting that this time and effort was the key element needed to improve their family’s situation.

These women were cast as the cause of their families’ dire situation by some, instead of examining closely their actual situations.  Working was a necessity for these women just so that they could help keep their family clothed, fed and housed.  They and their family members ate food prepared by others because it was either cheaper or these women lacked the luxury of time, cooking implements, fuel or the food to cook, not because these women were lazy or did not care about their families.  I hear strains of this sentiment today, when members of society blame those who are food insecure for their situation.  These people who are struggling to feed their families are often castigated for not cooking and relying on fast food or prepackaged, processed foods.

What is missing from society’s assessment of those who are food insecure, both today and in the past, is a careful examination of the actual circumstances of the lives of these groups of people.  When one does that, what becomes evident it that most of them are and were working very hard, being paid very little and making difficult decisions about how to feed their families with the limited resources available to them.  Sometimes the more things change, the more they stay the same.

America’s New National Pastime


No, I don’t mean baseball!  I have just started reading a book entitled Sweet Charity?:  Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement, by Janet charity bookPoppendieck.  In this book she contends that so many Americans participate in the fight to end hunger by donating to or volunteering in soup kitchens or food banks and pantries that it has become a national pastime.  Poppendieck chronicles the increased reliance on charity as a response to poverty and hunger in the United States, while noting the erosion of government provided assistance.  She contends that this resurgence in charity is a Band-Aid approach to ending poverty and hunger and is not the positive force it appears to be at first glance.

Her argument is two-fold.  First she states that America soundly rejected this form of poverty remediation over half a century ago.  Private charitable organizations, Poppendieck suggests, are inefficient and vary from location to location in the amount of assistance they provide.  She further states that serving meals and distributing groceries is inadequate assistance and serves to separate and segregate those in poverty from the rest of society.

The second point in Poppendieck’s argument is that participating in a charitable response to hunger and poverty diverts our attention from an actual solution to poverty in America.  Volunteering in and donating to charitable food distribution organizations, she contends, makes many Americans feel good and gives them a sense that the hunger problem is being addressed.  Poppendieck suggests that all this goodwill Americans feel prevents us from working to implement national policies with the goal of truly ending poverty and hunger in America.

As someone who has just committed a large amount of my time to volunteering in food pantries and working to fill some of the gaps that exist in assisting the food insecure, I was taken aback by the notion that I might be doing more harm than good.  I am, however, intrigued by what she has to say.  I have a feeling in the end we will not be too far apart on our assessment of the situation and what needs to occur to eliminate food insecurity in the United States.  That said, I do think this book will at times challenge my beliefs and opinions.

I think it is healthy to challenge the beliefs we hold, be they religious, political, or philosophical.  Part of the problem we face in the United States today stems from the fact that people surround themselves with information and people that reinforce their belief structure.  But that is a whole other discussion and one I don’t plan to undertake on this blog.   As I stated, I have just started reading the book, but I will share with you my thoughts on the topic and the book when I am done.  I am curious to see how or if it will alter the course of my journey to assist the food insecure.

I would be interested in your initial response to Poppendieck’s premise, or if you have read the book, what you thought about it.

Ex Libris

In my blog title I call this a journey and that is what it is and what it has been.  I have been socially conscious for as long as I remember, but my interest in this topic has developed and increased over time.  I would like to share with you some of the books I have read that have increased my interest in food insecurity or helped me to understand the complexities of the issue.  Most of the books I will share are not specifically about food insecurity, but seem crucial in my journey.  All of them, however, are good reads!

animal-vegetable-miracleThe title that probably started me down my current path of helping the food insecure is Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life.  This book chronicles Kingsolver and her family’s attempt to eat locally.  They intended to eat only food that had been produced so close to their home that they knew who grew or raised it or they grew or raised it themselves.  From this book I learned the importance of eating locally and seasonally.

As a result, I changed the way I feed my family.  Our yard is too shady to grow a garden, so I frequent farmers’ markets and farm stands.  I also purchase a share in a CSA (Consumer Shared Agriculture).  A CSA share is vital in the winter when most of the farmers’ markets and stands are not operating.  In the grocery store I try to stay away from produce that I know could notsunchoke or Jerusalem artichoke possibly be grown around here at the given time of year.  There is no way asparagus is grown within a hundred miles of Pennsylvania in December!  As a result, we are not only eating better tasting produce, we are eating new things too.

You may think it is a leap to go from this book to food insecurity, but it wasn’t for me.  This book got me thinking about how people used to eat, generations ago, when giant grocery stores did not exist.  That thought lead to how people manage today if they don’t have access to all the food in today’s giant grocery stores either because they can’t afford the food or because they live in a food desert.  Additionally,  Animal, Vegetable, Miracle touches on our current agriculture industry, including how we farm and what gets subsidized.  Topics, I would later learn, that are critical in understanding how we can grow so many crops and yet still have hungry people.

Within a few month of reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural omnivore's dilemmaHistory of Four Meals by Michael Pollan.  In this book Pollan follows food from it’s source to the final meal.  He examines how Americans feed ourselves by looking at industrial food production, organic or alternative food production and foraged food.  This book rocked my world and shattered more than one belief I held about what I should be eating.  If there was a list of books that all Americans were required to read, I would argue that this book should be on that list.

Like the Kingsolver book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma does not discuss food insecurity or even hunger in America, but it does address how we feed ourselves and how far we have drifted from how our great grandparents fed themselves.  Several of the problems Pollan addresses in his book are the same ones touched upon in Kingsolver’s work and are interwoven into the problem of hunger in America.

Both of these authors have websites associated with either the specific book or the entirety of their writing.  I will include links below.  The website for Animal, Vegetable, Miracle contains excerpts and indices from the book, links to websites referenced in the book and all of the recipes discussed in the book.  Michael Pollan’s website has links to synopses of all his books, his articles, and websites he finds to be good resources.

I will continue to share books and articles that have influenced and/or educated me on the topic of food insecurity as well as the broader topic of food in America.  I welcome suggestions as well.  I’d love to hear what has shaped your thinking on this topic.