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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Provident Gourmet: Peasant Food

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Peasant foods are often equated with subsistence living. While it’s true that peasant food is eaten by the poor, the food itself is far from what most people imagine. It’s hearty and healthy and tasty, made from local seasonal ingredients. We in America have drifted from eating real food to eating fake foods, pumped full of artificial ingredients and flavor enhancers. Soy, high fructose corn syrup, salt, and non-food ingredients are in virtually all highly processed foods. Even meat comes pumped full of water, artificial flavorings and vitamins.

We pay for this artificial food in many more ways than mere money. We pay with our health, our taste buds, and our economy. Diabetes and high blood pressure are only a small part of the health problems caused by eating so much artificial and limited foods. Digestive problems, allergies, asthma, skin and hair problems, attention problems – these are all affected by diet, these and even more. Science is only now beginning to prove the ills that beset us from over-tampering with our foods.

The poor of other countries eat healthier than we do, with our Little Debbie cakes, sodas, highly sugared breakfast cereals, artificial energy bars, and mass-farmed high hormone inoculated meats and milk. Our poor sup on sugar and spun air, on salt and soy, on artificial colors and artificially boosted vitamins. Those breakfast cereals shout “100% of your minimum daily vitamins”, and you have to stop and ask, “Why would I want to get 100% of anything from one single food or meal?” 25% or even 33% would make more sense.

Peasants once ate meals that were mostly grains, flavored with vegetables, and maybe seasoned with a bit of meat. Here in the south, the poor lived off of cornmeal. Cornmeal mush for breakfast, with a bit of butter and jam stirred in. Sliced cold mush with cheese for lunch. Fried mush with greens for dinner. Mush with sugar and cream. Cornbread with beans and maybe a ham hock. Cornmeal pudding. Cornmeal gravy poured over potatoes and string beans. Cornmeal stew with chicken shreds and celery and carrots. Cornmeal dumplings. Hot roasted cornmeal “coffee”. Cornmeal is survival food, what we ate when there was nothing else, and what we eat because it tastes so good. Crescent Dragonwagon’s The Cornbread Gospels gives many good recipes for all kinds of good food made from cornmeal.

In other places, the primary survival food was something else – rice, for example. A large part of the world relies on rice to survive, and I can’t even begin to enumerate all the lovely, delicious, inexpensive, and positively gourmet ways to prepare rice. Like cornbread, rice fills every culinary role, from breakfast and snack food to main course to dessert. Rice milk. Rice cream. Rice balls. Rice pudding. Rice stir fry. Rice soup. Popped rice. Rice patties. Rice cakes. Rice porridge. Tea rice. Rice pilaf. Rice paella. Rice sushi. Rice gumbo. Risotto. Yassas. Check out Alford and Duquid’s Seductions of Rice for rice recipes.

Beans are another peasant food to which we pay nowhere near enough attention. Like cornmeal and rice, beans can fill every culinary role, even making a fudge that tastes every bit as good as the candy, only smoother, richer, and with a better “bite” (in my opinion, and I love good chocolate) than most fudge. My favorite bean book is Ken Albala’s Beans: A History.

Another important poverty food is dairy food: milk, buttermilk, cream, sour cream, cheese, butter, and yogurt. These continue to play an important role in poverty diets because served with beans and grains, the three together provide a balanced protein combination. We don’t need a lot of dairy product which is what makes it so economical. A little bit really does go a long way. Of course, if you are raising your own dairy goats or mini cows in your back yard, you’ll have plenty to eat and share around. There is no single decent cookbook or treatise on just how marvelous and important this food group is. The closest book available to that is Anne Mendelsohn’s Milk, so I offer you a collection of books on the subject: There’s the Sokol’s excellent And That’s How You Make Cheese, Sonia Uvezian’s Book of Yogurt is a very good resource, Diana von Glahn’s The Great Big Butter Book is decent enough, but not as comprehensive as I’d like, Offerico Maoz’s Flavored Butters is a bit better, and that’s it.

Add eggs to this collection, and you’ve formed the basic quad of peasant cookery. Eggs were the best and cheapest source of meat for peasants and the poor all around the world. Chicken eggs were one of the few sources of meat the rich allowed the poor to eat without the penalties that accrued from eating pigs, cows, deer, and other animals. Roux and Brgdale’s Eggs is a fairly comprehensive cookbook for eggs, but lacks a really good history of eggs. Still, it’s one of the better resources available.

Finish off your peasant cookery with seasonal vegetables and fruits, and you can cook delicious, nutritious, gourmet meals inexpensively year round, and have a good stock of survival food that you are comfortable and happy eating. Grains, beans, dairy, and eggs are more than survival foods, they are everyday foods, and comfort foods, and are easy enough to dress up into gourmet foods that will rival anything ever served in a fancy 5 star restaurant. You’ll hardly miss the huge slabs of meat to which we’ve become accustomed to seeing as the main part of the meal. Meat should rightfully be considered a condiment, a seasoning, a side dish and that’s just the way it is in peasant cookery.


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