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.

The irony of our lifestyle

Harriet cleans out the fridge

December 10, 2008

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.

The newly purged refrigerator.

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?

Really, how?

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.

There are 10 comments on this item
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1. by sj.breeze on Dec 10, 2008 at 4:36 PM PST

I want to make the cottage cheese from this book, but it will cost me more to buy the raw materials than it does to buy it ready-made from Alpenrose. I like making things from scratch, and generally, doing so is less costly than buying prepackaged. But I have to be budget-minded too. I would love to buy the best cream I can afford and make my own butter, but it’s just too expensive. This is frustrating.

2. by Fasenfest on Dec 10, 2008 at 4:46 PM PST

I’ve noticed that some things make more sense then others. Of course, if costs is the only bottom line it will be hard to justify lots of things since economies of scale have tipped the matter over to the side of industry. Still, when, for example, I have milk from last week’s order left over (and I am part of a milk share) I tend to use that for making ricotta. It is easy and definitely costs me less then buying organic ricotta at the store - not to mention not having to buy another container. I make butter when I have a week or two’s cream saved up and I have not used it for anything else. I make yogurt each week which, in total, tends to lower the cost of my milk by the added value of all the other things I make. Still, it is about taking the time and being willing to work out all these systems until you find what makes sense for your lifestyle. That’s why I mentioned the biscuit mix in the book - little cost and lots of return. Also many other things that can be done with ease and save the world yet more packaging to put through the land fill.

3. by FoodRenegade on Dec 10, 2008 at 8:02 PM PST

I try to overcome this problem by making my own convenience foods -- cereal, bread, condiments, salad dressings, sauces, etc. It’s cheaper than buying store bought condiments, and it’s far healthier, too.

4. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Dec 10, 2008 at 9:09 PM PST

Perhaps I am being overly sensitive, but it is hard to read this as anything other than xenophobia about foreign food. Thai food is not “exotic”--it’s American food. Period. The few imported products needed to cook it well are durable and compact, the kinds of things that take little energy to produce or transport.

I’d put this a different way: If you don’t cook Thai, or Turkish, or Mexican, or whatever, whyever not? Part of the reasons these and other national cuisines are so loved is because they readily assimilate local ingredients wherever they travel. Choosing to ignore the most exciting flavors in the world because of a misinformed idea of what constitutes “local” eating and a low carbon footprint doesn’t make sense to me.

5. by Fasenfest on Dec 11, 2008 at 5:46 AM PST

No, I do not think you are being overly sensitive - it is the way you are feeling. And I understand what you are trying to say. I thought about it when I wrote that line and considered how it sounded. So I get you. Still, forgive me if it appears like I am taking on the flavors of other cultures as “foreign” or that I am being proprietary about our own. Rather, I am trying to suggest that imports tend to have a hidden cost to them. I understand the comfort and value they bring cultures - local and immigrant - and that food, as a reminder and support for tradition, is so very basic to our immigrant traditions that I am missing an important piece of our history to suggest otherwise. So, I completely understand the connundrum.

Still, I am near sick over the tons and tons and tons of tiny this and that’s that make their way into not only foreign food stores but local ones and that was the point I was making. From a industry perspective, much of this bottling is referred to as “added value” production - more return on basic ingredients. So I am taking on the notion that it is not adding value to our planet or, in the end, to authentic cultures who, I might add, often eschew the bottled sauces themselves. A friend of mine was recently telling me that he enjoys shopping in foreign food stuff markets because shoppers carts are actually filled with food that is going to be turned into live, honest to goodness meals - not packaged ones.

So, with regard to all cultures and food stuffs I suggest taking the time to make your own condiments and then storing it in jars you can reuse. I think I am making a legitimate point in suggesting much can be done from raw ingredient to overcome our addiction to tiny bottles. But I definitely hear how it is a fine line and I respect your perspective.

6. by Fasenfest on Dec 11, 2008 at 5:54 AM PST

Thanks Food Renegade for taking the time to make your own. And some point it would be fun to exchange recipes and stories of our efforts in making our own little things - I like to call it the Replacement Economy - replacing stuff that used to be made other places with lots of added packaging with stuff we make ourselves. Of course, this does not only apply to food stuffs but it a delicious place to start and will be, in my opinion, an ever expanding logic of our times.

7. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Dec 11, 2008 at 7:18 AM PST

Thanks for the reply, Harriet. As I see it, immigrants and imports are two sides of the same coin. You can’t have one without the other--and therefore you can’t oppose one without opposing the other. To my mind, those tiny bottles come with a cost, yes, but also with a hidden benefit that goes well beyond their flavor or nutritional value.

If you’re talking about products like bottled kung pao sauce or even salsa, sure, I agree with you: that’s not much added value. But I shop at Asian groceries at least once a week, and the shelves are full not only of ill-advised convenience products, but genuine traditional ingredients that cannot be locally substituted: soy sauce, tea, fish sauce (although the idea of a Northwest fish sauce made with our local sardines and anchovies is quite alluring), and...RICE. If you look at these ingredients and see only their carbon footprint, well, I’d geekily suggest that these are not the droids you’re looking for.

8. by Fasenfest on Dec 11, 2008 at 8:29 AM PST

This conversation is a good one. And I’m heartened that you are getting the essence of my lament. To the extent imagination and local product can be replaced, great. To the extend they cannot and/or their emotional factor rates high for those in transition, I understand. But, next time you shop consider how many of any of those items you mentioned are redundant. I’m quite sure our own culture is not the only one familiar with the notion of more is better. And should you not think we could produce our own intoxicated Asian flavors or otherwise, there are a couple of books I have recently read (I think Sandor Katz offers a couple) that might prove otherwise. So let’s not split hairs. I’m feeling you and I think you are feeling me.

9. by Chris Musser on Dec 17, 2008 at 9:23 AM PST

Matthew--Just yesterday I was looking at a recipe for making fish sauce at home. I am really tempted!

Harriet, where’d you find Better Than Store Bought? I do have several of those little bottles of curry pastes and chutneys that I rarely use, but I’ve otherwise purged my fridge of so much, I don’t mind hanging on to a few things I don’t use that frequently. I do get the idea, though, of cooking from our own food culture, rather than stretching ourselves over continents of cuisine. As long as I’m cooking German-Italian-French fare, I hardly need a cookbook (though of course I enjoy gathering ideas from them anyway) and that makes cooking at home, with what I have, a far simpler prospect and therefore more likely to happen.

10. by Fasenfest on Dec 17, 2008 at 1:49 PM PST

I got Better Than Store Bought at the Library and I know a friend of mine has it on hold after me. Maybe we should see if we can find a used copy to add to the library.


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