September 7, 2011
What comes to mind when you hear the phrase “home economics”? Perhaps the image of a perfectly attired Stepford wife criticizing the texture of the first pound cake you attempted to make or memories of the flyby course you took when you wanted to put in minimal effort and come out with a passing grade at the end of the term. For many people, the class has a reputation for being an outdated course where the most you learn is how to make biscuits and maybe a cake from a mix and use uni-tasker kitchen appliances. (During a perfectly useless semester in seventh grade, I was made aware of the wonders of an electric sandwich press, but it’s not something I would ever include in my kitchen arsenal.) But with a little retooling and updating, home economics classes could be a valuable tool in the fight against obesity.
Home economics had its start in Lake Placid, New York during a series of annual conferences held between 1899 and 1910. Organized by MIT sanitary engineer Mary Richards, librarian Melvil Dewey and a host of other educators, the meetings were dedicated to finding ways to apply the latest in science and technology to improve life in the American home. In 1908, the conferences led to the creation of the American Home Economics Association, which lobbied the federal government to fund educational programs, and the resultant classes were a means of guiding young people through modern consumer culture. Between stocking a pantry, furnishing and maintaining a home, caring for children and managing a budget to take care of it all, there are a lot of issues a person has to juggle in order to make a home function smoothly.
But along the way home ec attained the reputation of being a relic, a gender-stereotyped course meant to confine women to domestic roles. Some school systems have managed to breathe new life into the course by divvying it up into more specialized classes—like courses that specifically address food preparation, which might be more attractive to prospective students in the age when Food Network-style programs inject fun and excitement into life in the kitchen. However, because home economics is typically classified as an elective course, it—like art and music classes—is prone to being eliminated from a school’s course offerings.
Furthermore, over time the cutting-edge knowledge about nutrition and sanitation that was the impetus for home ec in the first place came to be viewed as common sense. But is common sense really all that common? We hear all the time that Americans are getting fatter, and a cultural preference for prepackaged convenience foods isn’t helping matters. If this is the case, couldn’t a home economics course focused on planning and preparing nutritionally balanced foods help alleviate this problem?
It’s a question assistant professor of history Helen Zoe Veit explores in a recent New York Times oped. A victim of the stereotypical kind of class where you learn how to make doughnuts from prefab biscuit dough, she argues that instead of condescending to students’ fledgling abilities in the kitchen, classes should teach them how to cook real food. “Too many Americans simply don’t know how to cook,” she says in the article. “Our diets, consisting of highly processed foods made cheaply outside the home thanks to subsidized corn and soy, have contributed to an enormous health crisis.” Those sentiments are shared by nutrition scientist Alice Lichtenstein and physician David Ludwig, who wrote an editorial on the subject in the Journal of the American Medical Association. “[G]irls and boys should be taught the basic principles they will need to feed themselves and their families within the current food environment: a version of hunting and gathering for the 21st century,” they say. “As children transition into young adulthood, they should be provided with knowledge to harness modern conveniences (eg, prewashed salad greens) and avoid pitfalls in the marketplace (such as prepared foods with a high ratio of calories to nutrients) to prepare meals that are quick, nutritious, and tasty. It is important to dispel the myths—aggressively promoted by some in the food industry—that cooking takes too much time or skill and that nutritious food cannot also be delicious.”
Personally, I couldn’t agree more. I learned my way around a kitchen because I had a mom who cooked all the family’s meals. That’s the standard of living I want to maintain because I prefer the taste of “from scratch” food over the prefab stuff. If I didn’t have that kind of a model at home to follow, I might have ended up trying to sustain myself predominantly on convenience food. Wouldn’t giving home ec a much-needed facelift—and maybe even making it a graduation requirement—potentially turn out more savvy, self-efficient and healthy young adults?
August 25, 2011
We here in D.C. got a bit of a shakeup Tuesday afternoon when a 5.8 magnitude earthquake struck. There are other parts of the United States and the world that put up with far worse seismic disturbances, of course. But for us, this was far from the norm. And to top things off, we have Hurricane Irene making her way up the coast. In these parts, storms should not have eyes and I’m hoping she keeps her distance and we won’t feel her full force like current weather reports are predicting. (Isabel was all the hurricane I ever care to endure.) But wherever you live, it’s a good idea to be prepared for whatever disasters might spring up. You really don’t want to be that person at the grocery store before, say, Snowmageddon who in a fit of panic decides to stock up on wine and Dreamcicles instead of essential foodstuffs. And really, who thinks of cooking at times like these? You might someday find yourself in a situation where you won’t be able to use your usual cooking tools—an oven won’t do you much good if the electricity goes out—and you need to have an emergency plan for feeding yourself.
Let’s start with the basics of stocking your pantry. The American Red Cross recommends that you store enough food to last you for two weeks. Foods that will serve you especially well include: ready-to-eat canned meats and fruit, prepackaged beverages, high energy foods (granola, peanut butter, etc.), compressed food bars, instant meals (like cups of noodles) and comfort food (why not try to make the best of a bad situation?). Avoid salty foods and be careful with items that require water to prepare since you may need to rely on your water stash to keep hydrated and clean. Try to avoid really bulky items, especially if storage space is an issue. And a person should generally have about half a gallon of water a day for drinking, so stock up accordingly. Things like pasta, beans and rice are cumbersome to prepare in less-than-ideal conditions and should also be avoided. In the event of a power outage, consume perishables you have in your fridge and freezer before diving into your emergency store of dry goods.
And while it’s hard to be the consummate kitchen maven in the face of disaster, it’s still possible to manage food prep without a fully functional kitchen, which the Canadian Red Cross illustrated in a Wal-Mart cooking demo earlier this month. Local chefs were brought in to create recipes that could be made without water or electricity, and came up with dishes such as “disaster tacos”—canned chicken, aerosol cheese and salsa piled into a shell—and hemp seed bean salad. For more ideas, check out The Healthy Hurricane/Disaster Cookbook by Dr. Marcia Magnus of Florida International University. Free to download, it’s a helpful guide for how to pull together balanced meals and snacks. Some recipes do, however, require heating. For those of you who can swing by a book store, try flipping through books like Apocalypse Chow (especially if you’re a vegetarian), The Storm Gourmet or Emergency Food Storage and Survival Handbook.
If weather conditions allow you to go outside and use a kerosene heater or a grill, more power to you. Some people create stoves from tin cans that use alcohol for fuel, and you can find a number of tutorials on the web on how to craft one; but bear in mind that even the Boy Scouts of America has banned the use of these devices by their troops, so this is a device you use at your own risk. If you plan ahead, you can buy commercially manufactured stoves that use fuel pellets or stoves that use Sterno as a heat source. These are all pieces of camping equipment and are intended for use outdoors.
You can also search around the Internet for no-cook meals, though this method for meal planning requires a lot of sifting. Even though these recipes don’t require an oven, you might need other electrical appliances to prepare them, or the prep work itself might be more than you want to manage under stressful conditions. If you’ve ever had to put food on the table while all hell is breaking loose around you, tell us about how you managed to muddle through.
Oh, and one last piece of advice: Don’t forget the can opener.
July 15, 2011
I’m about halfway through my first season of vegetable gardening, and frankly I’m amazed at how well it’s going. Considering how little I knew and how nervous I was going into this project, it’s been gratifying to see my little boxes of dirt turn into a well-stocked produce aisle. Few other endeavors would allow the novice such immediate success.
Much of it, of course, has been luck—I happen to have a south-facing backyard that gets sun all day, and Mother Nature has been doing a lot of the watering for me. The rest is just showing up: pulling weeds, pinching off tomato plant suckers (new growth in the joints of stems that could siphon away nutrients from the fruits) and harvesting veggies when they’re ready.
The latter, surprisingly, has been the most challenging. Some things, like lettuce mix and arugula, have grown so quickly and abundantly that I feel like Lucy Ricardo on the chocolate factory assembly line trying to keep up with it. I’ve been handing bags of the stuff to everyone I know, and I still have plenty left for two salads a day. Next year I’ll plant half as much.
And what was I thinking planting a whole row of dill? One plant would have been sufficient for the occasional sprig I need. I hadn’t realized they would grow to three feet tall. I couldn’t handle the pressure of a dozen plants daring me to find a use for them—and casting shadows over the rest of the bed—so I finally cracked and pulled up all but two (a couple of them found a new life transplanted in a friend’s garden).
Meal planning has become like triage; we eat whatever is most urgently ripe. One day, after weeks of eyeing my shelling peas, I realized they had reached peak plumpness and needed to be picked—stat! Any longer and they would become tough and starchy. Because peas take up so much space relative to their edible yield, we ate the entire harvest in one sitting. Next year, I’ll plant more peas.
I almost didn’t plant peas at all, because I have never been a fan. I was one of those kids who used to push my wan, shriveled frozen peas around my plate rather than eat them. But, along with tomatoes, peas might be the food with the most radical taste difference between fresh homegrown and store-bought. Fresh off the vine they are sweet and succulent—delicious.
Now on to the next project: learning how to pickle and can my surplus veggies so I can bring a little taste of summer into next winter—a season that always comes too soon around here.
June 28, 2011
Earlier this month, an ice cream shop in Columbia, Missouri decided to take advantage of the summertime resurgence of cicadas. Employees caught the critters in their backyards, boiled them, coated them in brown sugar and milk chocolate and then added them to a batch of ice cream. The insects are perfectly safe to eat and enough ice cream connoisseurs were unfazed by the “ick” factor of eating bugs that the batch quickly sold out. (One patron compared the cicada’s flavor to peanuts.) However, because there are no regulations regarding the preparation of cicadas for mass consumption, the health department stepped in and asked that the store discontinue that particular flavor. Creepy crawly cuisine may be way off the average person’s radar, but entomophagy—the fancy Latin term for eating insects—is beginning to gain attention in the Western Hemisphere.
The practice of eating bugs dates back millennia. In scripture, the book of Leviticus lays out laws and codes for day-to-day living in the ancient world, including diet. While Chapter 11, verses 6 to 8 puts the kibosh on eating rabbit and pork, verse 22 gives the green light to eating certain insects: ”Even these of them ye may eat; the locust after his kind, and the bald locust after his kind, and the beetle after his kind, and the grasshopper after his kind.” (Other translations also include katydids.) In present-day cultures, bugs have gone so far as to attain delicacy status—be it the fried caterpillars served in Africa, grasshoppers with soy sauce in Japan or water boatman eggs in Mexico city, which are supposed to have a caviar-like flavor and can cost more than beef. Even some of Washington, D.C.’s upscale dining spots offer exotic spins on familiar foods, such as tacos stuffed with grasshoppers.
But why even look to bugs as a food source? First off, certain bugs, such as caterpillars, have a protein content that is comparable to beef. Second, farm-raising bugs is a big energy saver. Raising livestock is problematic because of the amount of energy required to create those neatly packaged cutlets at your local grocery store. Large chunks of land are set aside to produce feed and for the animals to live and breed, not to mention the fossil fuels needed to transport animals from farm to slaughterhouse and then to market. And, at least with the beef industry, cattle produce more greenhouse gases than cars, contributing to global warming.
Then there’s the matter of the resources it takes to fatten up an animal until it’s ready for the table. When the Wall Street Journal broke down the numbers, the same 10 pounds of feed used to produce 1 pound of beef or five pounds of chicken could also yield up to six pounds of insect meat. Furthermore, while we may think insects are dirty and unhealthy, recall mad cow disease and salmonella and the risk that those meat-borne pathogens pose to us humans. And certain bugs are fortified with fats and vitamins that could help fend of malnutrition and starvation. With the United Nations predicting we will have one-third more mouths to feed by 2050, while still trying to deal with existing issues of hunger and starvation, finding alternate, sustainable protein sources will become even more urgent.
In the meantime, summer is here and I’m sure you’ve noticed that bugs are in abundance. But if you’re feeling adventurous, there are a few things to keep in mind if you’re thinking about indulging in a six-legged snack:
1. Not all insects are edible. However, of the approximately 6 million species of insects crawling around, about 1,400 of them have been documented to be safe for human consumption. Do your homework beforehand.
2. If you are allergic to shellfish or chocolate, avoid eating insects.
3. Insects in your backyard may have been exposed to pesticides. It is unclear if pesticide residues on garden-variety bugs are harmful to humans if consumed, but if you’re looking to get insect-savvy in the kitchen, your safest bet is to buy farm-raised bugs. You may also be able to find some canned bugs, such as silkworm pupa, at an Asian grocery store.
Still ready and willing to take the plunge? There are a few bug cookbooks on the market, as well as the website Insects are Food, which features a continuously growing list of recipes and a list of places where you can buy your creepy crawlies. And yes, there’s even a recipe category devoted entirely to cicadas. But sadly, none of them are for ice cream.
June 22, 2011
I can picture it now: two oblong ground beef patties taking a gravy bath, neatly sequestered in their aluminum compartment to prevent the sauce from bleeding onto the tater tots, pea-and-carrot medley or, most importantly, the apple dessert. A meal for a Hungry Man—or a child of the 1970s with an unsophisticated palate. (I considered TV dinners a treat when I was a kid, especially the ones with built-in dessert.)
The phrase “Salisbury steak” no longer sets off my salivary glands—quite the opposite—but it’s a lot more appetizing than how Dr. James Henry Salisbury described the dish before it was named after him: “muscle pulp of beef.”
And that may be the least nauseating bit in his scatalogically dense 1888 book, The Relation of Alimentation and Disease. Dr. Salisbury, like many people before and since, believed that food was the key to health and that certain foods could cure illness, especially of the intestinal variety. He tested his theories during the Civil War, treating chronic diarrhea among Union soldiers with a diet of chopped-up meat and little else. After 30 years of research he finally published his ideas, setting off one of the earliest American fad diets.
“Healthy alimentation, or feeding upon such foods as the system can well digest and assimilate, is always promotive of good health. Unhealthy alimentation always acts as a cause of disease,” he wrote. Most modern physicians would agree with the sentiment to at least some degree, if not as to what constitutes healthy or unhealthy alimentation (more commonly known as “food” nowadays).
For Salisbury, minced beef patties were health food. The enemies, believe it or not, were fresh fruit and vegetables. When overconsumed “at the expense of more substantial aliments,” he wrote, these led to “summer complaints” in children.
As for the ill soldiers, the problem was an “amylaceous [starchy], army biscuit diet,” with not enough variety or nutrients. His prescription:
The first step is to wash out the sour stomach and bowels [by drinking hot water], and to change the food. The food selected should be such as is least liable to ferment with alcohol and acid yeasts. This is muscle pulp of beef, prepared as heretofore described, when it affords the maximum of nourishment with the minimum of effort to the digestive organs. Nothing else but this food, except an occasional change to broiled mutton.
In the preface, Salisbury described the research that led him to his conclusion:
In 1854 the idea came to me, in one of my solitary hours, to try the effects of living exclusively upon one food at a time. This experiment I began upon myself alone at first…. I opened this line of experiments with baked beans. I had not lived upon this food over three days before light began to break. I became very flatulent and constipated, head dizzy, ears ringing, limbs prickly, and was wholly unfitted for mental work. The microscopic examination of passages showed that the bean food did not digest.
Did the intrepid scientist stop there? Of course not! In 1858 he enlisted six other schlemiels to come live with him and eat nothing but baked beans. He did not mention whether he had a wife who had to put up with seven flatulent, dizzy mopes in her home; my guess is no. Later he and four other guys subsisted solely on oatmeal porridge for 30 days. Other single-food experiments followed, leading him to the conclusion that lean beef, minced to break down any connective tissue and fully cooked, was the best and most easily digested food. By the time the Civil War started, in 1861, he was ready to test his theories on suffering soldiers.
When Salisbury’s book was published, two decades after the end of the war, his ideas caused a sensation. An Englishwoman named Elma Stuart extolled the healing virtues of the Salisbury diet in a book described by one observer as being “written in a popular and racy style,” helping to publicize the mincemeat regimen. For about two decades the diet—not that different, when you think of it, from extreme versions of the low-carb diets of recent years—was all the rage.
Not for another half-century would the Salisbury steak’s future TV dinner companions, tater tots, be invented. By then, Salisbury had been dead for almost 50 years, too late to object to such “unhealthy alimentation.”