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the past (and future?) of food; a limited view
Old 07-06-2008, 10:39 PM   #1
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the past (and future?) of food; a limited view

Spinoff from a post by samclem on the "Depression" thread, talking about energy efficiency (consumption/GDP) and how much room Americans have to cut back.

I've been realizing that most traditional foods here don't require a lot of energy for pre-domestic preparation and processing. They are either consumed fresh or cooked from fresh on the spot, or they are preserved in traditional (even though mostly now industrialized) ways, like cheese, prosciutto, and dried sausages. The only real staples we use that require large-scale industrial growing, processing and/or packaging are few:

-flour
-salt
-canned fish
-dried beans/lentils, etc.
-coffee

I can't think of any others except maybe dairy products, though dairy has pretty regional markets.

We buy lots of canned tomatoes, but those one could DIY if they had to. With flour, you can also make pasta, but packaged pasta is convenient.

I was also going to add oil, wine, and vinegar, but while those are produced on an industrial scale, they are still also actively produced locally.


In the supermarkets, of course you can find the usual suspects, from crappy industrial ice-cream sandwiches to fish sticks to corn flakes, etc. And Italians are making much more use of these convenience foods. But what if we really needed to consume less energy in the food arena?

Here, we still need the energy inputs for growing, but not so much for packaging and maintenance. The more you go to the smaller towns and the traditional shops the more you see this.

Rather than stocking up, people go more frequently to the store and buy just what they need for the next day or two. I still have not gotten into this habit. Buying less food at once means a smaller fridge suffices. Shopping at the local store is a little more expensive, but it also takes gas, time and a car to get to the supermarket.

Initially, I was startled to see eggs sold just sitting out on the counter but, while I do store them in the fridge and they do last longer that way, I've made carbonara at least 1x 2x a week for the past several years with no ill effects. I've heard it's the US industrial washing that makes the eggs more vulnerable to bacterial invasion. (?)

Let's continue.. bread is just sold loose. At our little local store you ask for bread crumbs and the guy goes to the back and grinds them from the store's own stale bread, puts it in a paper cone and folds it over. Could Americans get used to this, or will we always need the tube with the metal bottom, cardboard sides and plastic top with foil/plastic sani-sealer, plus the labeling, marketing, coupons and TV spots?

To cast back into the past, the absolute zenith of zero packaging and processing: my MIL recalls as a girl that a local lady would make the rounds of apartments with a goat, and milk the goat right there for you in your kitchen (you provide the receptacle). Even today you can go to the local wine co-ops and they sometimes have gas pumps so you can pump out wine into containers you bring (they also sell containers for a modest fee).

You get the picture. If I go to the butcher (every town has at least one) I get the meat cut fresh to order and the guy has higher turnover and less refrigeration cost since it's closer to "just in time". The dried hams and sausages are just sitting out and are perfectly fine that way. There aren't vast acres of open coolers, and there's no wasteful styrofoam.

All that extra stuff creates jobs, creates GDP, but is really unnecessary. Are Americans "richer" spending part of their food dollar on it, or could people be more productive at something else?

I know supermarkets may offer lower prices due to scale, but then I wonder how much of their revenue comes from the stocking fees processed food mfr.s pay. The 'straight' food might be a loss-leader to get you to come in and buy Munch-Os. You can't buy Munch-Os at a butcher shop, which is bad for the Munch-O people.

Anyway, in the context of samclem's previsions on cutting back, I just thought how much could really be saved on the food front.
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Old 07-06-2008, 11:18 PM   #2
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That does it, I am moving to Italy. I may stop in France for a meal or two on the way.
Jeff
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Old 07-06-2008, 11:37 PM   #3
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One thing I have noticed is that we have lost the seasonality of food. You can find strawberries in February, oranges in August, peaches in December. All those fruits had to travel thousands of miles from Chile, Australia and other far flung places to get here and that was a huge waste of energy. I think it would be hard for most people (me included) to get back into the habit of eating only what is locally produced and in season.

Quite frankly I am also guilty of buying products that were made thousands of miles away but needn't be. When I buy pasta I want it to be Barilla, when I buy prosciutto I want it to be di Parma and when I buy parmesan, I want it to be Parmigiano Reggiano. I also like my French sea salt and my Swiss chocolate (made with cocoa beans imported from Africa no doubt). Could I do without all these luxuries? I could certainly do, but I don't really want to as long as I can still afford them...

But I remember the days when, in Europe, we ate locally produced food. The meat, milk, cheese, vegetables, fruits and even wine were all locally produced and consumed fresh or preserved for the winter. I know that in Europe some supermarkets are going back to promote regional products. My mom shops at one of them and she buys local jams, fruit juices, fruits, veggies, meats, cheeses, etc...
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Old 07-07-2008, 03:30 PM   #4
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how funny a post, ladel, because i was just saying offline to another forum member that you wouldn't be experiencing quite the financial hit you are taking overseas if only you preferred pad thai to prosciutto.
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Old 07-07-2008, 04:07 PM   #5
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Forgot sugar.

jclark, be careful what you wish for. It gets boring just eating the same regional foods. And, from what I have seen on TV, France seems to have more agricultural bounty in its marketplaces.

In our zone a traditional food of the past was chestnuts. Now they have fall festivals where they roast them on big braziers. They're not a fave of mine, but the Italians like to snack on them. When most people were very poor, they were an important winter staple around here. Imagine eating chestnuts all winter to survive.

I'm just curious whether, if push comes to shove, Americans will accept less packaged and sterilized food.


FIREdreamer, where does your mom live?

lazy.. hmm, so that's why my ears were burning.
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Old 07-07-2008, 04:48 PM   #6
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Dont Americans work more hours per week than Europeans? Packaged food became popular when Mom had to go work to help support the family. Who wants to come home and make a down home meal after just working for 10 hrs.

Food that is easier to fix is easier on the people who had to work all day. I doubt it will go away easy..
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Old 07-07-2008, 07:41 PM   #7
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True, but a lot of meals you can make simply and quickly. Most all pasta sauces outside of ragł are pretty much designed to be do-able in the time it takes for the water to boil and the pasta to cook. Italians also go for very simple preps.. just a grilled or broiled fish or steak with nothing but a little salt or maybe lemon juice. A salad. Cut up some tomatoes and mozzarella. The bulk of it is pretty un-elaborate and they don't tend to like lots of spices or ingredients that are exotic, or hanker for sauces with very intricate and layered flavors. Something more labor-intensive like lasagne is for Sundays or holidays.

Frankly we don't even bother going to restaurants because most of the food is rather simple, always regional, offerings of things that are easy to make at home.. whereas in the US it was fun to go out and get things exactly because you would never bother to make them at home. I mean, I can make veal or chicken marsala in under 10 minutes so time is not the issue.

I was more thinking about the extra packaging, processing and storage. A perfectly valid Italian home meal here is: put out the cheese, bread, and salami with a knife, add a couple of fennel bulbs and some fruit to eat raw. If that's too skimpy, you might add a pasta to start. It's 'terra terra'.. very basic, and the focus is more on the ingredients than on the cooking part.

They also tend to 'outsource', but it's more along the lines of picking up a roasted chicken and maybe some sides at the rosticceria, or getting desserts from a pastry shop, or ice-cream from the ice-cream shop for a gathering. I don't think I've ever been served a home-made Italian dessert or sweet baked good, even at a party. They are always intrigued by my muffins and cookies. I'm wracking my brain and a fruit salad with a little liqueur added is the most elaborate I can come up with. Oh wait, there was the sanguinaccio (blood cake) some acquaintance's granny made.

Except for big cities with McDonald's, the 'fast food' is pizza or rosticceria. Or maybe "home"-made white bread sandwiches in a bar but that's more for a breakfast/lunch/snack:

These are the best I have ever seen! Often they are rather sad.

I spend a lot of time cooking personally because I have the time and because I often try to make the "American"/Chinese/Indian/etc. dishes I miss, within my limited ingredient resources.

The difference I'm trying to describe is more like this:
American: buy Stove-Top stuffing (cardboard tube, metal bottom, plastic lid and plastic/foil sani-seal), boil water, add butter, cook for however long (let's say 10 min.)
Italian: cut up stale bread cubes, a tomato or two, a bit of red or green onion, some basil leaves if you have them, douse with oil and vinegar or lemon juice, salt, pepper, stir and you have "panzanella". Time: <10 minutes. Now close your eyes, imagine you are on a picnic in an olive grove and I have just saved you $800 minimum in airfare.

Just for fun I looked up panzanella on the Food Network:
Recipes : TBL Panzanella : Food Network

Notice it has more ingredients and 2x the time and work (although 20 minutes still is not horrific). Plus you have to heat up the stove for the bacon, not to mention seek out not only the "grape" tomatoes which must be "caramelized", but also the "heirloom" or "yellow pear" tomatoes. No wonder a modern working mom or dad would be put off by it.

The recipe sounds yummy, and Italians would appreciate it, but would not recognize this as particularly authentic, due to the bacon presence. And the ironic part is the fetish-izing of truly poor, frugal, food.. just a way to use up stale bread!
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Old 07-07-2008, 08:26 PM   #8
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Did you eat Stove Top stuffing before you moved to Italy, Ladelfina--not that there's anything wrong with that ? I've never made that in my life--our typical dinners (all made at home) have always been more like what you are describing as "Italian" using whatever we have on hand--tonight we're having quesadillas with smoked paprika, salad greens dressed with balsamic, and watermelon....
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Old 07-07-2008, 08:55 PM   #9
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Did you eat Stove Top stuffing before you moved to Italy, Ladelfina--not that there's anything wrong with that ? I've never made that in my life--our typical dinners (all made at home) have always been more like what you are describing as "Italian" using whatever we have on hand--tonight we're having quesadillas with smoked paprika, salad greens dressed with balsamic, and watermelon....
Hey, I'm right up there with you guys. Watermelon was on my menu tonight.8) Don't ask about the rest of the menu.
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Old 07-07-2008, 09:01 PM   #10
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Hey, I'm right up there with you guys. Watermelon was on my menu tonight.8)
Uh huh... The Associated Press: Scientists: Watermelon yields Viagra-like effects
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Old 07-07-2008, 09:04 PM   #11
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Hmmm--maybe I'll scrap the rest of the menu and just forcefeed the watermelon to DH!
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Old 07-07-2008, 09:12 PM   #12
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Need 6 cups to get the same effect..oh wait how do I know that..um never mind..

I like stove top stuffing..
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Old 07-07-2008, 09:21 PM   #13
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Need 6 cups to get the same effect..oh wait how do I know that..um never mind..

I like stove top stuffing..
How much stovetop for the same effect ?
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Old 07-07-2008, 09:24 PM   #14
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How much stovetop for the same effect ?
Im sorry I cannot divulge such culinary secrets on an open forum..
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Old 07-07-2008, 09:40 PM   #15
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My sister lives for Stove Top stuffing; I can take it or leave it.

Again, I'm just talking about operating closer to the source, with "live" food, as opposed to (kinda) "dead" or at least "deadened" food, and the extent to which processed food is a real 'economy' or not. I love the convenience of having frozen spinach or canned tomatoes, and these food-preserving processes have contributed enormously, to working parents, to people who live in cold climates, etc. But I kind of wonder if society needs a lot of the packaged crap that is sold, and whether it could be weaned off it.

I mean, where is the benefit to a processed, pre-made PB&J sandwich? Is it really THAT HARD to make a PB&J sandwich??
Think of the space-age R&D that went into getting the exact Stove Top cube size right.. how to spray on the flavorings and salt and so forth. Is this a boon to the economy, or a frivolous waste? It's kind of an open question for me.
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Old 07-07-2008, 09:44 PM   #16
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I'm moving to Italy. I'd rather get it regionally and in season and unprocessed. I try but rejoining a CSA might be a bit of a pain right now.

Here's what we had for dinner tonight...

1 medium onion chopped
3/4 cup olive oil
4 cloves garlic minced
handful of flat parsley (Italian parsley)
1 big can of plum tomatoes
1 small can of tuscan tomatoes
handful of pancetta minced

heat the olive oil, add the onion and parsley and cook until translucent. add the garlic and pancetta and heat for a bit. don't carmelize the garlic!

add the tomatoes and reduce to simmer. simmer partially covered for an hour and a half.

we had it over penne with a bunch of parm on top and garlic bread on the side.

I served herbed chevre on crostini as an appetizer

total time I needed to spend on it all... about 10 minutes.
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Old 07-07-2008, 10:02 PM   #17
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My sister lives for Stove Top stuffing; I can take it or leave it.

Again, I'm just talking about operating closer to the source, with "live" food, as opposed to (kinda) "dead" or at least "deadened" food. Think of the space-age R&D that went into getting the exact cube size right.. how to spray on the flavorings and salt and so forth.

Is this a boon to the economy, or a frivolous waste? It's kind of an open question for me.
You cant compare Italy to the size of the US. The cannot do the same thing which you are referring too. At least I do not believe you can. People live to far and wide. Different culture. Enjoy yourself in Italy let the rest of us suffer and screw up your dollar advantage you loved
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Old 07-07-2008, 10:43 PM   #18
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Notmuchlonger, you are evil!!! I didn't mean to talk so much about Italy but it's the only thing I know. We could substitute Mexico or Vietnam or Morocco. And what does size have to do with it? [stop right there you dirty dogs]

Do they have "Uncrustables" in Russia or China or some analog thereof?
Should they?



And if you say Italy "can't" do that.. (invent grotesque processed foods).. well, they certainly can:

AIA
This is kind of the size and shape of a piece of pork loin, but it is a chicken-nugget type extrusion, (sometimes with a spinach-laden or ham-laden center for that je ne sais quois of sophistication) without the benefit of the crunchy breading.

Went to DH's aunt's house and was served this; the first course was a broth made from a cube. I'm sure now you're jealous!!!
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Old 07-07-2008, 10:51 PM   #19
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Went to DH's aunt's house and was served this; the first course was a broth made from a cube. I'm sure now you're jealous!!!
! In a country where you could feast on a platter of cantaloupe and prociutto, it's almost criminal!
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Old 07-07-2008, 10:57 PM   #20
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Welcome to SPAM.com

Great with hotsauce. Rye bread. Some processed cheese. Stuff lasts forever too..
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