Based in Portland, Oregon, Harriet Fasenfest gardens, cooks, writes, teaches, and speaks on the issues of food security and justice. Her book, A Householder's Guide to the Universe, was published in fall 2010. She is currently working on a new book and curriculum guide for teaching householding and householding economics.
I have always known that there’s nothing new to anything I am saying, but rather something old and forgotten. Clearly, modern life and the busy schedules required to support it has helped fog the window, but still, there’s nothing new to the tricks and trades of kitchen stewardship.
I mean, for goodness sake, has anyone ever read Helen Witty’s Better Than Store-Bought cookbook? I did this morning, with a cup of coffee, and had a near-revelational moment.
The moment could not have come a moment too soon. Having had my mind blown by the endless sea of tiny over-packaged products in the good, fair, and local grocery store the other day, I was near-faint with the irony of our lifestyles. We want cleaner air, saner systems, healthy soil, and supported farmers, but we also want packaged pumpkin-scone mix with Northwest cranberry crumbles. Help me, Lord, I’m confused.
Take a walk through any of the hipster stores. In fact, take a walk down the aisle of any store. I dare you. Take an inventory of the number of sauces, soups, stews, beans, pilaf mixes, spice mixes, cake mixes, boxed stuffing mix (does no one have stale bread in their house?) cereals, tea boxes, juice boxes, and on and on and on and on. I mean, not just one big slab of unsweetened and/or sweetened chocolate or cocoa for baking or eating, but at least (no kidding) 30 different varieties, and all in individually wrapped bars.
Where is the logic, where is the prudence, where is the reason in this madness? Does nobody want to recognize the fossil fuels used to manufacture, produce, and distribute all this? Yes, I understand, lots of jobs and lots of ease and lots of choice and a whole economy based on consumerism is at stake, but how do we have any conversation about soil and air and global warming and supporting local farmers without looking at the disconnect sitting on our grocer’s shelves?
I’ll give it to you: Packaging is nice, pretty even. And I know folks are busy and that not everyone is a cook, but, holy mother of logic. It makes no sense. It must stop. You can and must start figuring out other much more logical ways to stuff your pantry, if stuffing is what you want. I suggest much can be done with very little. But there’s something else defying our “eat here now” logic: We love the exotic.
Yes, yes, I know: Who doesn’t love Thai anything? But if you don’t cook Thai (or Mexican, or Turkish, or whatever) food frequently, you don’t need to stock your pantry with a bevy of ingredients that (a) you’ll probably only use once a year, (b) will fight for space in your fridge, and (c) defy eating locally.
I don’t want to come down hard on everyone, because I know the drill. I live it and have been trying to get clean with the world and myself. But saint I am not. I mean, the other day I did a refrigerator-and-pantry purging, and Oh My God. It’s insidious.
Among the reused jars of homespun logic were the invaders of my youth: the foreign fossil-fuel flavors of far away, the crusty-lidded chutneys, curries, and sauces that made sense in one way but not in another. So out they went, mostly because they were taking up space in my refrigerator.
We all need to make choices. Not choices as in, everything from everywhere in pretty packaging (local or not), but rather, choices about putting our money and work where our mouths will be. Like getting together with a group of friends to make Helen Witty biscuit mix to be used in a million ways without a shred of packaging.
It doesn’t have to be the biscuit mix per se; it could be anything that, in its production, distribution, and consumption, eliminates the need for so much fossil-fuel use. Making stuff at home and in bulk supports so many sound economic and environmental principles that it’s almost a shame it tastes so good. Well, maybe not a shame, but a whole lot nicer than putting your ass on a cold bicycle seat in the pouring winter rain. Finally, here is a movement I can get my fat butt behind.
So next time you go grocery shopping, do what Helen says: Stay away from the inside aisles unless one of them happens to be for bulk food. And then get together with friends and make the stuff that will become a whole lot of other stuff. And once you advance from the basics, you can go on to all the other wonderful recipes in her book that turn something into something greater.
Sometime soon I will post my list of 25 ingredients needed to cook your way to home stewardship. And next season I will teach which of those you can grow, where you can buy them in bulk, and which recipes and techniques you need to maximize your efforts.
Until then, try anything from Helen’s book, and be rewarded with the pride of activism and a spacious fridge.
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Want more? Comb the archives.
Change in our kitchens
Reflections on cooking — and a career that’s based largely at the stove.
Flatbreads from around the continent
Beyond a supporting role
The great Sicilian-Neapolitan kitchen rivalry
Five ideas each month for eating better