Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Desert Cuisine

A reggae song brought to mind the principal concern of the Berkeley community when I was keeping my first full-time house in the mid-Sixties: how to keep body and soul together on almost no money. My grocery budget was nine dollars a week for two people. Living that lean was not uncommon for students or for families who were extremely frugal with what income they could count on. 

The issues surrounding the food supply are serious and deserving of respect: it takes three generations to repair the nutritional shortcomings of a pregnant woman, and the effects of a father's nutrition are just beginning to be appreciated. From my limited perspective, it seems as if the neighborhoods suffering from food privation have lost sight of their own precious culinary legacies, to which I personally owe a great deal. Traditional diets are relatively inexpensive to acquire and can be stored for long periods without electricity.

Food stamps did not exist in the mid-Sixties, although federal surplus food was available to some. The mimeographed recipes that accompanied hand-out blocks of yellow cheese, jars of peanut butter, cans of chicken, and bags of beans were essays in getting the best from the least. I count myself among the blessed to have visited Puerto Rico a few years earlier and been able to enjoy the cafeteria offerings at Humacao Mission Hospital when I volunteered there. The steam table pork hocks, greens, rice, and indigenous pea-like beans kept me in excellent spirits. Seattle garden guru Anne Lovejoy refers to soil being "in good heart" when all is as it should be, and I find the concept valid for animal as well as vegetable advantage.

When I live in Berkeley, it was a center of nutrition research. Frances Moore Lappe' had published "Diet for a Small Planet", that proved a vegetarian diet could provide adequate nutrition. At the time, eating meat three times a day was the recommended menu. Happily, my first kitchen was equipped with old family recipe files, one early and one mid-twentieth century American cookbook, and Luigi Carnacina's "Great Italian Cooking", an encyclopedic collection of the many regions of that peninsula. Mediterranean vegetarian Lenten meals are well-represented in Carnacina.

Berkeley was no food desert, nor was the Fillmore District of San Francisco, to which I commuted. There was an old-fashioned butcher shop close to my work, and I could find fifteen-cent a pound lamb neck or bony chicken parts to salvage for curry or soup when I got home. A pressure cooker would have earned me a much earlier bedtime, but I was just learning. 

Not long after, I lived briefly in Salt Lake City and learned about the LDS tradition of keeping a year's worth of staples on hand. That was inspiring but not big news, because I had visited a cattle ranch in Northern California in the early Fifties and been impressed by the pantry, that was stocked to support a season's worth of meals for ranch hands, visitors, and the crew for a round-up.The place was twenty mountainous miles up a one-lane dirt road from the nearest store, and even farther from an electric power line. We ate very well. Beef, not surprisingly, appeared on the menu quite often. There were fresh vegetables from a garden patch. Canned, dried, or frozen substitutes will keep body and soul together, as will sprouts or a five-gallon bucket growing starts of greens. Cheese, dried milk, and dried fruits are all pre-electric answers to staying alive and well. The Cornell triple-rich bread formula turns starch into steak. Root vegetables, cabbage, and many fruits keep a long time in the refrigerator. Interestingly, long-keeping produce is the least expensive.

Put briefly, buy what you eat, eat what you buy, and use "Diet for a Small Planet" to plan menus. Leah Chase and Paul Prudhomme will show you the way to a glorious table when your savings pay off. The Great Big Discount Chain emerged from the punishing inflation of the early Eighties to salvage the food budgets of canny housekeepers, who had been known to negotiate group discounts on back to school clothes from regular stores. The chain's first food offerings were indistinguishable from the contents of that rancher's pantry. Transform dutiful kitchen necessity with olive oil, unsalted butter, wine vinegar, and fresh-ground pepper. Add spices to taste-30-

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