The Future of the Quik N' Easy Meal

Busy week here, as Eric attempts to wind up his online teaching class, my parents descend for a week of family projects and fair going, and we deal with the daily realities of a rapidly-onrushing fall, complicated (happily) by a long trip and an early Jewish holiday season. So I give you something I wrote way back in 2007.

The other day I thought I'd try out three "fast, easy, healthy, local" recipes that were sent to me from a green website that shall remain nameless because I'm not trying to give them a hard time - I appreciate what they are trying to do.

Why? Because my job now is to think about food. That is no hardship - regular readers of this blog will know that the question of how we will go on eating is my great passion. I write an awful lot about agriculture, and because I'm so fascinated by that end of this question, I worry that I occasionally give the question of cooking short shrift. And that troubles me because I think cooking is just as essential a project - and one that our food security hinges upon.

A lot of people have talked and written about how urgent it is that we prepare our agricultural system to deal with declining fossil fuel inputs and rising costs, that we preserve our soil, reduce the impact of agriculture on global warming, and reduce aquifer depletionand I believe all of us are right to put part of our focus here. But few of us have focused, except in the most superficial terms, on food, cooking and diet as the means to save the world.

And yet I do not think it is overstating things to say that how we grow food will always be secondary to how we cook and eat. If we are to address our impending crisis, a surprising amount of it will depend on our ability to adapt our diet - and that will depend on our ability to cook and eat differently.

I suspect too many people it seems a small thing to talk about cooking, self-evident that when different things are in the stores or our gardens, we will eat differently. But I think further consideration will show that it doesn't work that way. Consider the dual problem of hunger and poor in the US. Overwhelmingly, these are problems of poverty, of industrialization of food systems, of ignorance, as you would suspect. But also, these are overwhelmingly cooking problems. That is, a number of people have shown that it is perfectly possible to eat nutritiously and cheaply - for example, that a whole grain, vegetarian, even organic and local diet is possible on an extremely low budget. No one in their right mind would rather see their kids go hungry than eat this way. So why is hunger so endemic in the US?

Part of it is lack of time - single mothers and their children are among the most likely people to be hungry in the US, and they have often little time to cook. Often, as someone noted on this blog recently, older siblings prepare food for younger children, and about all they can handle are boxed mac and cheese. Some of it is dietary preference. Some of it comes from low income people being homeless or living in facilities without cooking and refrigeration or without the money to pay the bills to keep these things going.

But some of the problem is simply not knowing how to cook cheap foods. For example, my local food pantry observed that flour is one of the last things to leave their shelves - because few of their patrons know how to make their own bread or baked goods. When dried beans are given out, they must come with instructions, and often people don't seem to follow them.

A large portion of the American poor (and the American rich, but they can afford to buy better quality pre-made foods, although they don't always) *DO NOT KNOW HOW* to cook, and because of this, they *GO HUNGRY*. That is, anyone who thinks that when we have different foods available we'll all just eat them isn't paying attention to the evidence of their own eyes - in fact, few of us have cooking skills necessary sort that would allow us to adapt easily to dietary changes. No doubt some of us will - particularly those who are most literate and have the most time to adapt. But the truth is in front of us - people who don't know how to cook don't find it easy to learn, even when the stakes are terrifically high. Instead, we can see that lack of cooking ability actually leads to food insecurity.

This brings me back to these recipes. I wanted to test them out because I thought it might be useful to look at the comparatively small class of Americans who do still cook from scratch regularly, and see how applicable what they've been learning is to the future. So I took three recipes I've recently received from the nameless website - roasted vegetable enchiladas, whole wheat cornbread and apple-cranberry crisp. All were advertised as quick, easy, seasonal and local, a meal to be prepared in 45 minutes or less (I think - I'm not clear on whether the timing was supposed to be cumulative). And I decided to prepare them completely from scratch, using little or no powered equipment, substituting whatever was missing in my home.

Now to be fair, this isn't really much of a test. Because I store food, I have an extremely well stocked kitchen and all the equipment needed for low power cooking. That is, even if I couldn't get to the store, or buy much food, it would be a good while before I ran out of ingredients. Still, I thought it useful to describe my experience.

It also isn't a test because I cook this way every day. I live nearly 20 miles from the nearest grocery store, and in my rural hamlet there are two places that do take out - both make pizza, neither delivers, and my husband and I frankly make a better pizza than either one. We produce 3 meals a day for our family, usually 7 days a week (we do eat out sometimes, but try to keep it to a minimum), and if we run out of something, we don't go to the store, we make do. But even in my relatively isolated area, I don't know a lot of people who cook like I do, almost entirely from raw ingredients, rather than using premade, higher cost components. I suspect a disproportionate number of my readers are serious cooks, who do eat and cook as I do - but it can be hard to remember how very unusual that is in our society.

The enchiladas began with roasted vegetables. They called for roasting peppers and tomatoes, neither of which are in season here now (this was originally written in December), but that was easy, I just left them out. So took sweet potatoes, onions, potatoes and carrots (called for) and added parsnips and turnips (not), tossed them with olive oil and some chili powder and threw them in the wood cookstove. Easy - I could have made these in the sun oven on a warm day, but we haven't had one of those for a while. The next part was the dried beans, which I'd soaked over night (I've left that time out, plus the time getting the woodstove up and hot, plus the time spent splitting wood for kindling), which I put on the stove to boil. The recipe called for canned refried beans, but that's not the sort of thing I keep around. If I hadn't had oil, I could have roasted the vegetables with water in the pan - I wonder what percentage of the population would know that?

Meanwhile, I set about making the cornbread. I took dried corn and put it in the grinder and ground it by hand. Then I ground the wheat for flour, mixed them together, added water, honey, butter and ooops...out of baking powder. Ok, I've got baking soda and somewhere, buried in the back of the kitchen is cream of tartar. It took about 10 minutes to find it, but I finally did, and was enormously relieved I didn't have to figure out sourdough cornbread or wait until summer for grapes from which I can precipitate cream of tartar... Ok, mix it up, throw it in to the oven - nope, the 475 temp that I have it at for the veggies will not do. So we wait 10 minutes with the oven door open to get it down enough to bake bread. Ah well, probably won't rise well in the oven, but it will still taste good.

Meanwhile, I'm making tortillas for the enchiladas out of purchased masa (yeah, to be fair, I should grow my own, but I don't). I don't have a tortilla press, so they come out a little thicker than I like, and I burn one, but not bad. This is time consuming, however, and I wonder how many people consider tortillas "quick and easy" - but I don't know anyone making local tortillas. My guess is that the recipe authors exempted some parts from their "local" and "quick" distinctions.

Ok, the apple crisp. Plenty of apples galore, but no dried cranberries. I do have dried blueberries and some dried cherries - which to pick? Well, there are more blueberries, so those. I cut the sugar back by about ¼, because it is designed to sweeten tart cranberries, not sweet blueberries. It calls for lemon and vanilla - no lemon. Should I try cider vinegar to make it tarter? Leave the lemon out? I'll add a little of the vinegar, and some orange zest to try and make it citrusy. It is supposed to be thickened with cornstarch, but I haven't got any that I can find (I'm pretty sure there is some, somewhere, but eventually I give up so as not to burn the cornbread) and I don't much like the stuff anyway, so I go and look up how to thicken with flour without getting lumps.

Roasted veggies and cornbread are done and cooling. Now the streusel topping. Grind more flour to mix with rolled oats - the recipe calls for white flour for the topping, but whole wheat will be good too. No nuts, ignore them (actually, I do have hazelnuts in their shell, but I've no intention of shelling them - the recipe calls for chopped walnuts, which presumably come from a plastic bag). White sugar only, but I've got molasses, and since molasses is extracted from brown sugar to make white, I mix a bit of molasses in with the sugar, sprinkle it over and off into the oven it goes - but I'd better haul more wood, the oven is cooling.

Now it is into the oven and the last step is to take the cooked beans, fry them with oil, garlic, and spices into refried beans . I mash them with the potato masher, then sauté them. A layer of tortillas goes down in the pan, then the beans, then roasted vegetables, then more tortillas, then a layer of tomato sauce that I've mixed with dried chiles and roasted garlic and chile vinegar I made - to me it tastes better than conventional enchilada toppings. The recipe calls for "enchilada sauce" or "bottled local salsa" - the former would hardly be local, the latter is unavailable right now - the only local salsa maker I know of that makes it from local ingredients is me, and my family ran out of salsa two weeks ago. Now cheese. I have local mozzarella, which I use. By rights I should have made it, but the goats aren't producing much in this season.

Into the oven again. Ok, I've timed the whole thing - 3 hours and 46 minutes for my quick, easy meal. It was excellent, by the way. And of course, the whole thing is a little self-conscious - I'm obviously looking for ways to add complexity, and there are plenty of them. Again, I'm not trying to pick on anyone. But a lot of what we've been trained to do as "cooking" in our quick, easy recipes is use items where someone else did a lot of cooking or processing for us. If we are to imagine a diet that depends on our garden economies, we have to imagine that we are doing the work.

I think about all the times I substituted one thing for another - how many people know that baking soda and baking powder are not interchangeable, but that you can add cream of tartar to make them equivalent? How many people do I know personally who believe recipes appear straight from the hand of some deity and would never, ever consider deviating from them? How many times have I posted a recipe somewhere mentioning "to taste" and had six people email me about exactly what I mean by that? How many people who cook based on Martha Stewart Living and Rachel Ray know how to make a quick, easy, healthy meal *really* from scratch, when you are missing half the ingredients? Most of our cooking is grocery store cooking - it requires no substitution, no adaptability, no understanding how ingredients go together and choosing among choices - they simply prescribe a set of practices. But cooking from a garden, without a trip to the store isn't always like that.

Someone once observed that you can tell what decade you are in by how long the "quick and easy" meals take. In the 1970s, a good portion took as much as an hour. By the 80s and early 90's, 30 minutes was the norm. Amazon now counts 23 cookbooks advertising meals in 15 minutes or less, and a number of them are best sellers.

Now there is such a thing as a 15 minutes meal in sustainable, from scratch cooking. They are called "salads" - or if you don't count the time spent to make cheese, can jam or bake bread, maybe a sandwich. Even those who cook on a regular gas range, who have to cook from scratch aren't going to do it in 15 minutes. That's not to say there are no quick prep options - a lot of times things take longer, but you don't have to do anything. I can assemble a pot of vegetable soup in 15 minutes, and set it on the back of the woodstove, ignore it for three hours, and then a meal is provided. Bread takes 10 minutes of attention, max - the rest of the time is rising and baking. If I was pushing myself, I could produce a pot of soup, a loaf of bread and a salad in 20 minutes of actual prep time - but 3-5 hours of advance planning for rising, cooking and baking.

What worries me about the cooking skills taught by our quick-n-easy culture is that they are not applicable to a future where we can't buy baby carrots shaved for us by a machine in a plastic bag - where we actually have to cut and peel our own carrots. They are not applicable if you can't go to the store regularly and buy exactly the same ingredients that are called for in a recipe. They assume refrigerators, refrigerated shipping and universal availability of ingredients in most places.

It isn't that there is no such thing as sustainable, quick food - there are a lot of options there. But there is no such thing as sustainable, *THOUGHTLESS* food - that is, meals we don't think about until five minutes before we eat them. Either we think about them far, far ahead, when we stock up on pasta and can tomato sauce so that we can have five minute spaghetti come spring, or we think about them that day, when we soak the bulgur, harvest the parsley and tomatoes, dig out the lemon juice we froze when organic lemons were on sale, and sort out a sweet onion for the tabbouleh.

It seems beyond self-evident to say that the ability to cook is tied to our ability to eat, but it has not been in the first world. That is, most of us, except for the important but mostly-invisible people who go hungry, that rising number that we are adamant that we will never belong to (although without compelling reasons for our adamance) have had the money to buy the processed bags of baby carrots, the premade yogurt, the restaurant meals, the canned beans. Now we may not have that money, or we may not be able to get them, or we may not be able to afford the harm that shipping them around does to the planet. And we have now raised several generations of people who do not cook.

And they really don't - slightly over half of all American houses own a roasting pan. More than 10% do not even own a frying pan. 31% of Americans say they "never" cook. More than half of all Thanksgiving meals include premade, restaurant and canned items - the one time of year we cook, we don't. And this isn't a class issue - Americans who say they "love" to cook do it slightly less often than Americans who say they are neutral on the subject. One study I saw some years ago (and can't cite because I can't find it again) notes that people who own no cookbooks, and people who own 30 or more cookbooks both eat the vast majority of their meals from premade ingredients and restaurants - the only difference is that one group eats at diners and fast food places, the other eats at more expensive restaurants. But neither are cooking, and neither are cooking the way they will need to - even the people who have the best information and who say they love to cook aren't doing it day in and day out, and they aren't practiced at the kind of cooking we'll do in the future.

And even those who grow food have trouble eating it. Bart Anderson, in an essay a few years ago in _Permaculture Activist Magazine_ noted that almost no one has made the connection between *growing* the food and actually eating it. Now I'm growing tons of Jerusalem artichokes and groundnuts too - but they haven't replaced potatoes as my staple foods yet. If they ever had to, I could do it, and I flatter myself I'm a good enough cook to make it taste good too - but appetite fatigue is a real risk for children, the elderly and the ill. Sudden changes in diet can be so stressful that people simply stop eating - and those who are most vulnerable suffer malnutrition and illness as a consequence. It is not enough to say "Oh, I'll eat like this when I have to." The learning curve is simply too steep, and the stakes too high.

My own observation is that in many cases, it is harder to learn to eat and preserve what you grow all the time than it is to grow it. That's even truer as we begin eating less common foods, or moving towards a truly local diet. We are making an enormous change in our diets, and in our society as a whole. Food is more than fuel - It is culture, love, happiness, comfort, a part of who we are. How we eat and what we eat is part of our identity - far more than what we grow.

We are about to change our identities in a profound way. And at the root of this transition is the question of time - the quick and easy 3 hour meal requires someone to be around to cook it, watch over it, check on it. With a majority of households working hard to make ends meet, we encounter a bind - we could make ends meet better if we didn't have to buy our food at restaurants, but cooking quickly and sustainably requires knowledge, experience and the time at least to learn how to do it. Most often, it requires someone at home.

A nation reared on instant and quick and easy is about to make a very hard transition - a shift away from processed food, a shift towards activities that have been rapid and easy taking more time. Some people have already made this transition, often painfully, often at the cost of hunger or ill-nutrition, and with health costs. The rest of us are facing it- and the realization that food will have to take up more space in our lives - and that we are not yet ready or able to give it.


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By Nancy Whiting (not verified) on 16 Aug 2010 #permalink

I actually misread your sentence below:
"Now there is such a thing as a 15 minutes meal in sustainable, from scratch cooking" as
"Now there is NO such thing as a 15 minute meal in sustainable, from scratch cooking", because I was too busy agreeing with your thesis to read carefully. You've nicely summarized all the things that have been swirling in my head for a while. I make time, though it's sometimes hard, to cook simple meals during the week, in our 2-working persons + young child household. Though I started cooking by necessity, now I enjoy it and have been getting more concerned about the future of food and the way we sustain ourselves. Your post here, the current issue Ms. magazine (food as a feminist issue), and the Margaret Atwood book I just finished ("Year of the Flood)", all remind me that we are facing really serious issues, and that we are nowhere near ready to deal with them.

Ha! It wasn't 'til I read your total time for all three dishes that I realized they were intended to be cooked and served as one meal. I *do* cook just about every meal I consume, but the only time I make multiple dishes from scratch at once is on a holiday. If it were me, I'd just make the roasted veggie enchiladas and maybe one *very simple* side. Do people really make or expect three different, involved, from scratch dishes at each meal?

Have you ever explained more on this subject: "how many people know that baking soda and baking powder are not interchangeable, but that you can add cream of tartar to make them equivalent?" I would love to learn about it!

One of my oldest and still well used cookbooks is Rose Elliot's 'Cheap and Easy'. I have a couple of books called something along the lines of "Quick & Easy' which could go to Oxfam because I so rarely use them. I have spent most of my life looking for a cookbook called 'Quick & Cheap & Easy' but I've never found one. I think you can have any two but not all three.
I bought my son a copy of 'Cheap & Easy' off Amazon Marketplace. It's not in print anymore, even though there are huge ranges of coffee-table cookbooks which have perhaps three recipes you would cook more than once.
Yvonne (UK)

By Yvonne Rowse (not verified) on 16 Aug 2010 #permalink

I run into this when I teach cooking classes: I forget just how basic I need instructions to be. Even assembling an egg, some cheese, and some diced ham and microwaving it and throwing it on some pre-made bread product is a revelation to some folks. But you know what? It de-mystifies the food, and suddenly there's an at-home option to weigh against the McMuffin.

Also, a 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda + 1/4 tsp of vinegar roughly equates to 1 tsp baking powder, and doesn't taste like vinegar. Nor like baking powder, which is what my cornbread usually tastes like! I also know where my vinegar is!

This was a very interesting post, and gets toward one of my pet peeves in a lot of modern recipes. Most "from scratch" modern recipes assume one owns an industrial mixer (like a KitchenAid), or other pieces of high-end equipment. There aren't directions for doing things by hand any more. Even cutting and chopping (or just mixing) is assumed to be done via food processor.
It's funny too because some of my friends call me a foodie because I know how to improvise, and are amazed I cook without fancy equipment. I keep telling them I grew up having to learn to improvise with what we had on hand since we weren't able to just go out a buy whatever we wanted/needed. It has nothing with wanting to be Martha Stewart.

Yes. My father, who grew up in an immigrant Italian household, remembers that the discussion at breakfast was about what they would cook for supper. My husband and I ground all our own flour off and on for years, but haven't managed it for the last couple of years, although I have plenty of wheat berries on hand. Various reasons why â and one, I think, is simply that the mill is in the garage, instead of the kitchen.
It is hard, certainly, to come home from work at 6 or 7 at night and start thinking about what to cook for supper -- I wind up making scrambled eggs far too often. Cooking is easier with practice, even when you know how. My husband's job often takes him away for extended periods, and it's amazing how hard it is to get back into the routine -- not just of cooking supper, but of figuring out What to cook for supper.

It's great to have concrete examples like this when discussing why people do so little cooking. Personally, I live close to multiple sources of groceries, have sufficient time and money, and try to cook fresh, local food regularly ... but I STILL would consider making those three recipes in one evening too ambitious!

This post/comment thread is also a couple of years old, but I bookmarked it because it's an interesting discussion of why learning to cook healthy food on a limited budget is often difficult.

I think a lot of people confuse cooking and baking.

Baking (bread, cakes and pastry) is a chemical process. Weighing and mixing need to be done carefully and oven temperatures are important.

Cooking is something else, it is basically a blending of flavours and a softening of textures using heat and is therefore much less constrained by rules. Quantities, temperatures and timings are much less rigid and the end results reflect on the merit of the cook.

I use the internet for inspiration when I need inspiration but note down ingredients (no quantities) and hardly any method before I cook. If I get the thumbs up from the family it goes into my hand written cookbook for future use.

I can remember asking my mother for recipes for my favourie meals when I was in my 20's, I am prepring in case my kids do the same!

By cornish_kate (not verified) on 16 Aug 2010 #permalink

As bluefoot commented, most "from scratch" recipes involve equipment. Even though I own a KitchenAid mixer (top of the line and amazing), unless I am doing a Project, it's not used.

Frankly, whenever I see an interesting recipe that turns out to use a food processor to do things like "chop/grate cheese"... the amount of disappointment that I feel is overwhelming, and I inevitably lose respect for the author. Honestly folks -- why use a food processor or a blender for something that you can get done really easily with knives or some such? Just the THOUGHT of cleaning a food processor makes me want to take a nap.

There it is -- the real reason I cook from scratch, by hand -- I'm a lazy SOB who doesn't want to clean obnoxious time savers.

Just reading about cooking that meal made me tired. Reminds me of some gourmet recipes I've attempted, only to give up around 10 pm, hungry and tired, put the half-finished recipe in the refrigerator and go get take-out. Unfortunately, most modern cookbooks and magazines are an impediment to learning to do the kind of simple cooking we need to do. Another issue is that very few Americans know how to cook all the edible parts of an animal in order to utilize meat efficiently.

A huge part of being part of a farmers coop and getting a "box" of fruits and veggies each week was learning how to cook and eat them. I had to learn to cook and my family had to be willing to try many new foods. Some, like new fruits, needed little prep, but if you've never really eaten squash or artichokes or used fresh dill it takes time and imagination (and some good recipe sources) to learn to cook them. I now know multiple ways to prepare summer squash, that you can freeze cooked winter squash for later use in breads and cakes, that some greens taste better raw and others taste better cooked. I also learned that I don't like Kale. Sorry :-)
Laura in So Cal

By Laura in So Cal (not verified) on 16 Aug 2010 #permalink

I've never understood pancake mixes that come in a plastic container. 1 cup flour, 1 tsp baking powder, 1 cup milk, 1 egg; whisk everything up and you've got breakfast (or lunch or dinner for that matter).

"Easy Mac & Cheese" is currently heavily marketed in our local supermarket. Bleagh! My 14yo daughter knows how to make cheese sauce *and* pasta from scratch. Add a few herbs, fresh vegies, beans, and whatnot and you've an incredibly tasty meal.

It's only recently - since I've been cooking or baking for various social events with the local musical theatre group - that I've realised that many people can't cook from scratch. For us it's the norm.

Interesting article... just a few things that came to mind though. I can't imagine anyone taking three and a half hours to cook up a meal on a regular basis, which makes me suspect that the push for 'fancy' cooking as 'every day' cooking is somehow linked to the preprocessing of food and the availability of electric kitchen tools. I think if you look at the traditional cooking of the lower-class folk in various places (and I'm thinking here specifically of my own Scottish grandparents, though this is applicable elsewhere) it tends to be simpler to prepare, and much of the cooking time is the actual 'cooking', where other household tasks can be done with one eye on the stove. A meal of mince-and-tatties or stew takes about 10 minutes of prep at most and about half an hour of cooking... a stir fry about the same in prep time and only about 5 minutes with a high heat. Cakes, pies and roasts take a bit longer to prepare and have substantially more cooking time, but these would be done on a Sunday and the left-overs would last through much of the week.

Whats common about these meals is that the people originally cooking them just didn't have the time, what with working at the factory, taking care of the children, and often doing some paid work at home as well, to cook meals that used a lot of prep time. The families that could have an elaborate three course meal that took most of the afternoon to prepare (in the 19th century at least) generally didn't have to cook it themselves, but used a hired cook. What increased personal wealth, modern appliances and preprocessed food have done is allowed us all access to a style of food that would have been unheard of for most of the population in my great-grandparents time. I think what will happen if we lose much of these advances is a return to a simpler type of eating, not to 3 hour 'quick' meals, as many of the challenges of modern living (single mothers raising kids, long work hours, lack of time) were also around in abundance in the 19th century - more so, in fact, as at least we don't have a 12 hour work day or live in one-room apartments with 4 kids while taking in sewing to make extra money.

I was brought up cooking from scratch so its not something I find a problem. A simple meal of fresh veg and meat can be cooked in 20 mins flat but you do need to know how. You also have to plan what you have available. (I do this on a weekly basis for bought stuff)

Timing is one issue that my beginner cooks in this house (kids, Hubby) have battled with and are starting to win. (Three course dinners where the first course is the green, the second course is the meat and the potato/starch ends up as a sort of dessert are now becoming a bit rarer.) You just can't learn this stuff overnight.

I'm not sure where things will end up but I must say I boggle at the notion of starving in the midst of plenty just for lack of knowledge. I'm glad to live here in a culture that has never gone this route to such a great extent!

viv in nz

By knutty knitter (not verified) on 16 Aug 2010 #permalink

I was not presenting this as a meal *I* would normally produce myself - the point was to translate what was presented as a three course, but quik n'easy meal into a reality with less equipment and without pre-purchased ingredients. I might make a much faster variant of it - roasted vegetables, apple crisp and whole wheat cornbread, and for those things, even with grinding the corn and wheat (which we do regularly) I could do it in much less than an hour of prep time - but with a considerable amount of baking time, of course.


I'm not really convinced that we're all going to have to "go back" to grinding our own grain and baking our own bread, because most people never did - the miller and the baker were probably the first "jobs" society invented, because they both benefit enormously from even small economies of scale (as does the craft of the brewer). Even where people were making their own bread, they often used a communal bakers oven to bake it in, because heating one large oven is so much more efficient than heating lots of small ones. Purely from a fuel-efficiency standpoint, baking your own bread is (unfortunately) a retrograde step, unless you've got the heat anyway and are looking for something to do with it.

From a historical point of view, hand querns were used until quite late in british history, and would have been used even longer if various laws hadn't been put into place to force people to use the mills (often part or wholly owned by the landowners). In many places it was illegal to own a hand-quern in the medieval period and after a mill was built, the governing landlord would insist that all hand-querns be confiscated or broken.

That said, I can't actually see it going back to that state. I don't see us returning to a pre-technological period, just a post-oil period.

Oikoman's point is right - people often wanted to use hand grinders, because the miller's portion could be extremely high. Moreover, in the US in pre-modern days, because of the size of the country, hand milling was normative, as was baking, as it is in much of Africa and Latin America today. It almost certainly depends on site, community organization, etc... But if you want to buy grain in large quantity for storage, you are going to grind your own or eat bleached grains - because whole grains have a comparatively short storage life when ground (and the flavor quality differential is huge - fresh ground tastes better). So I'm not sure it is as clear as a one-size-fits-all answer - yes, we're going to the post oil age, but that means many things for many people and many places.


A friend of mine recently asked me for cooking lessons. Specifically she wants to know how I stock my kitchen and create tasty simple meals day after day with basic ingredients. One big thing I do is build a week of meals using the previous days prep for the next meals. Like cooking beans for monday, and thursday and freezing thursdays beans. Also, how to turn oils, acids(vinegar, lemon etc) and spices into tasty sauces, things like that.

I heartily agree with you that people don't know how to cook, but I don't think cookbooks are the solution either. The process of meal planning is the crux of the problem, but I"m not sure how to teach that.

Moreover, in the US in pre-modern days, because of the size of the country, hand milling was normative, as was baking, as it is in much of Africa and Latin America today.

That's great if you're not short of fuel wood (say, because you've just colonised a vast and relative un-exploited landmass). Here in the UK, we've been very short on fuel wood since about the 15th Century, so firing all those ovens just isn't going to happen, no matter what. That's why we first turned to coal - and we all know where that leads, don't we?

I accept the point about hand-grinding and the miller's portion, but there we're into the complex intersection of food, economics, and social stratification...

I also see what you mean about storage... Here's how it works for malt at my local homebrew shop: he has an account with a maltster and a good grinder in the shop. Whenever I need to buy grain, I "buy" a 25 kg sack, which is just recorded on a chit in the till - I never actually take delivery of a sack of grain (I couldn't get it home on the bus if I wanted to). As I need it, I go into the shop and get grain freshly ground, until my credit is used up, at which point I "buy" more. I get freshly ground grain whenever I need it in quantities I can actually manage, and he gets the money he needs to keep a good stock of malt and sufficient volumes to get a good deal from the maltster. Everybody's happy. Obviously, things are rather different in remote, diffuse communities... I'm looking at this from the point of view of someone who lives in very small apartment in a very densely populated part of the world.

fresh ground tastes better

And there's no question that fresh, wholemeal home-baked bread tastes better that that shop-bought soft white muck, but how many people really value taste over convenience? Especially if that taste involves lugging sacks of grain around without the benefit of motorised transport, and spending huge amounts of time trying to collect enough twigs to make enough faggots to fire the oven?

I agree with Tegan -- I'd much rather use a knife and my hands than deal with setting up and cleaning some gadget, even the very nice hand machines we have -- but on the other mechanical hand, I got a whole lot fonder of my Kitchen Aid and other gadgets when I developed severe carpal tunnel in both wrists and had to spend a couple of years letting them heal. They're much better now, but still not undamaged, and my perspective has changed a bit.
Grinding grain is not at all difficult when you just make it part of what you do. I enjoy it. But I should take a lesson from Sharon and do small amounts as needed. Currently, my job involves a lot of late hours that are making things more difficult -- divided focus is a problem for me. There are more things I want to be doing than there is time for.
Pretty sure there's not any one solution to the problems of people not knowing how (and in some cases not wanting) to cook. I do think examples make a huge difference. Have watched a close friend go through stages -- she did not want to cook, or garden, or preserve food. She knew I did all those things, but it wasn't her priority. First they started a garden ... then she started cooking.. then she joined a fall, winter and spring CSA (saying she's never going to grow a winter garden) ... now she has taken a class in canning, but is adamantly swearing she's only going to do a little water bath canning now and then. Maybe a batch of jam or two, but nothing more... We joke she's going to wind up better at all these things than I am, and I will be the unprepared one. It's probably true.
Three of my friends have taken up canning this summer; it does seem like a wider societal change, and that seems hopeful.

Sure, that makes sense for your particular situation - but remember lots of people in the world live in very different situations, and blanket statements probably will never be accurate. For example, in much of the world baked goods can be baked easily at home using either the heating source for the household or the sun - no extra wood required.


Just out of curiosity, how long will ground cornmeal last if you have an airtight container and a relatively cool spot? I don't have trouble keeping either stone-ground or "store" cornmeal from getting rancid, but it lives in the fridge. There's a happy medium, I imagine, between easy long-term storage in a fridge and grinding what you need for each baking day, but I'm not sure what it is.

but remember lots of people in the world live in very different situations, and blanket statements probably will never be accurate.

Oh, absolutely. I didn't say that no-one will be grinding their own grain and baking their own bread, just that we won't all be doing that. Much of the sort of economic activity that was going on pre-industrialisation will still be going on, because it still makes practical sense for a lot of people.

I guess what I was trying to get at is that you seem to be assuming an absolute "worst-case" scenario here, where absolutely nothing is available if you don't make it yourself from first principles. I expect that sort of situation to be fairly rare, for all the same reasons that it has been since we settled down in the neolithic. People live in communities, and it makes sense to do certain tasks in a more centralised or communal fashion. You just seemed to be almost failing into the "lone survivalist" mode, which seemed weird given how much time you've spent pointing out how silly that is...

Good post - I didn't know about your site till 2008 so I didn't see the original, and I never seem to find time to reread your previous entries.

My experience is that it takes more time to cook with fresh, unprocessed ingredients like veggies and most grains. The stir-frying step in a stir-fry is quick enough, but before that my DH spent an hour, or sometimes more, cleaning and cutting up the veggies by hand. In fact, I often have to remind him to start a meal anywhere from 1 to 2 hours ahead of when we'll want to eat it, because he tends to forget how long it takes. He'd spend a little less time on the veggies if he made a smaller quantity, but he usually makes enough for multiple meals.

I use a grain grinder to grind whole wheat for bread - or at least I do this in other seasons but prime planting season. For quite a few weeks now we've been buying bread because I often do not finish gardening tasks until 8 p.m. The last thing I want to do at 8 p.m. is start on grinding wheat - and if I've left dishwashing till then (because the sun comes into the window above the sink in the morning and makes me feel uncomfortably hot), the dishwashing gets priority. And I really don't want to grind wheat after 9 p.m.

If we're going to have a decent life while using less energy, we're going to have to spend more time on cooking, cleaning, and other basic tasks. This is difficult to do for all the reasons Sharon pointed out.

Here in the UK, we've been very short on fuel wood since about the 15th Century

Does Siberian elm (Ulmus pumilla grow in the UK? I bet that it does and if not, that it would if introduced. Many consider this tree to be an invasive exotic species but it, to my mind, along with Russian olive (Elaeagnus augustifolia) are indispensable. I heat my home exclusively with wood and probably 80% of my fuelwood consists of these two species. I own five acres (~2 hectares) and sustainably harvest sufficient fuelwood (~6 cords/year) from this property. The woody biomass actually has increased over the years despite this harvesting. These species grow rapidly, readily propagate themselves by seed and resprout from the stump. There really is no downside to these trees, in my opinion, other than that they aren't native. If the UK underwent a campaign of planting these tree species, all but the most intensely populated urban areas would have sufficient fuelwood for heat and cooking.

A good hand-cranked grain mill costs about $70 but using it regularly is a brutal chore. An electric one costs about $250 and is well worth the price, provided electricity is available, of course. I get corn (maize) & wheat free from work and use a mill to crack it for poultry. (Actually, lately I have been giving uncracked wheat to the mature birds.) My hand-cranked mill can be set finer for producing flour or meal, and the electric mill has finer screens for producing the same. Since the combine doesn't do a superb job of separating wheat from chaff, I have constructed a grain cleaning contraption out of PVC pipe and a shop vac (electricity again). I don't clean the grain beforehand for the poultry but do for human consumption. Often, usually in winter, I cook cleaned, uncracked wheat or rye in the pressure cooker for adding at a later time to soups and stews. The soup or stew, per se, is a Quik 'N Easy meal, if you don't count the preparation of the ingredients that go into it.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 17 Aug 2010 #permalink

I don't think Australia is as bad as the US (yet?) but we do have some issues. One thing I see in the supermarket that bemuses me is "pancake mix". Seriously? Flour, egg, milk, that's pancake mix. Variants on ratios and baking powder for thick/thin/crepe style etc. Buttermilk or yoghurt for fat hotcake types.

I do love to cook, and I own more like 300 than 30 cookbooks - but I have never ground my own flour! I buy tortillas from the supermarket.

Does Siberian elm (Ulmus pumilla grow in the UK? I bet that it does and if not, that it would if introduced.

We have completely endemic Dutch Elm Disease, but that's not really the problem. The island simply isn't big enough to grow sufficient fuel wood for our population - well, not if we want to have any agriculture. Our population density is 246 people per square kilometer - but quite a lot of that area is Scottish and Welsh upland peat bog, where even the best-adapted native trees don't grow. Ninety percent of our population lives in "the most intensely populated urban areas".

The island simply isn't big enough to grow sufficient fuel wood for our population -

I would say instead that your population is far too big for the size of your island. Btw, Ulmus pumilla seems to be entirely immune to Dutch elm disease.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 18 Aug 2010 #permalink

I think that one part of the problem is that modern families want (demand) that their meals be different every evening -- and no leftovers! Our great-grandparents would cook a large batch of stew and it woould be served for several suppers -- that's efficiency.

If you haven't read it, you may want to read Real Food Has Curves. I got it at my CSA because the authors are local to me and the book was for sale there. He has some really great statistics (ok, to me, probably old hat for you) about how and such people make (or don't) food. Also included are some excellent recipes. I've made a few so far and all have been great. And I've put them to the "between camp and football" test, and so far we've eaten and been on time! ;) Like you, though, I'm not sure how fair a statement that is as I cook, have a stocked pantry, and almost everything the book had on "stocking your pantry" was already in mine. But it was a fabulous read nonetheless.


Does anyone have bright ideas for reasonably quick lunches when you're in the middle of a busy gardening day? Salad generally won't do it because I'm hungry when I'm doing physical labor all day, and if I'm out of leftovers I end up resorting to eggs or bread & peanut butter. Some of you must have more creative ideas . . .

We cook almost everything from scratch these days and it does take time. To cut corners, we cook a lunch meal and often a dinner meal that is designed to last a few days - vege or legume curries are great for this. Make a big batch on Sunday night of two or three different curries or a curry and a soup/stew. One is packed in tiffins for lunches and the other is heated up for dinner with perhaps rice or flat bread or potatoes. I like curries because several are as easy to prepare as one - you already have all the spices out on the bench anyway. And soups/stews cook themselves once you have them going on the stove. To break it up a bit, a different soup can be easily done in minutes midweek - or a salad in summer. Breakfast is a quick meal if you have already made the bread and have something on hand to spread on it - again a bit of work in prep but almost no time taken on the spot.
The question - "what shold we have for dinner?" shouldn't be something we ask each day - rather "what is there for dinner?" suits the local/sustainable/home grown mindset better.

I would say instead that your population is far too big for the size of your island.

Well, yeah... But there's a few options for how we could resolve that - at one end, we could arrange our affairs as efficiently as possible so as to minimise the overshoot, whilst at the other we could not give a stuff about efficiency and maximise the overshoot. All other things being equal, I tend to favour the option that produces fewer corpses. There's nothing virtuous about deliberately reducing the efficiency with which you use natural resources, unless you actually want to cause the maximum possible suffering as we rebalance our population.

Btw, Ulmus pumilla seems to be entirely immune to Dutch elm disease

I looked it up before I mentioned that. The degree of immunity apparently varies considerably. Anyway, in our conditions, short-rotation willow coppice is generally the most efficient option (in terms of BTUs/hectare).

I'm with you, Dunc, about favoring the option(s) that produces fewer corpses. The thing is, though, that nature doesn't care about what you and I favor. Nature takes its course regardless of what we favor and pretty much regardless of what we do. Populations that exceed carrying capacity crash.

The American elm (Ulmus americana) was a stately tree and an integral component of mesic deciduous forest ecosystems across eastern North America. It is functionally extinct now due to Dutch elm disease. I say "functionally" because often stumps will resprout after the above ground biomass has been killed by Ophiostoma but these sprouts are killed back in turn long before they can grow into large trees. I'm not personally familiar with Siberian elms being susceptible to Ophiostoma but I'm sure you are correct about immunity to DED being variable in this species. Perhaps a certain susceptibility is why U. pumilla isn't as prevalent in the eastern US as it is elsewhere. My only point is that a widely hated invasive tree can be useful for fuelwood when managed for that use. Willows and poplars grow fast but the wood isn't very dense and hence has low heat value compared to elm. I have access to considerable hybrid poplar wood but use it only to get the fire started, then pile on denser, longer burning, coal forming wood such as Siberian elm & Russian olive, both of which grow abundantly around here.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 19 Aug 2010 #permalink

Nature takes its course regardless of what we favor and pretty much regardless of what we do.

Well, I perhaps wouldn't go quite that far. There are things that we can do which can alter the trajectory. Just to focus back on the issue of baking bread, and pulling some illustrative numbers out of my ass... Say you can fire a bread oven large enough to bake all the bread for a village of 50 households with one tenth of the fuel wood it would take to fire 50 individual ovens. That would make a pretty big difference to the carrying capacity of local environment, wouldn't it?

Willows and poplars grow fast but the wood isn't very dense and hence has low heat value compared to elm.

Yeah, but the increased growth rate and high stocking densities more than offset the lower calorific value per unit weight (having internet issues here at the mo, or I'd supply refs). Plus willows will grow in places other trees won't, namely wet places. You've heard about our weather here in Britain, right? ;)

Funnily enough, I've never thought of elm as being a particularly good fuel wood... (Not that I've ever encountered it, since elm's been practically extinct here for as long as I can remember). I know one old woodsman's poem that says "Elm logs burn like smouldering flax, with no flames to be seen", and another that says "Elmwood burns like churchyard mould / Even the very flames are cold"...

I agree that there are things people can do to lower their environmental impact and that they "should" do these things, and that living a low impact lifestyle can be fun. But on a planet with 6.9 billion people that could have perhaps supported 200 million indefinitely without major global environmental upheaval, the low impact things people can do, individually and collectively, essentially consist of attempting to stem hemorrhage from a severed major artery by putting a band-aid over the wound.

Elm isn't as good a fuelwood as oak or hickory or ash, but it is better than any conifer or soft deciduous wood. The major drawback with elm is that it is hard to split. But I have a gasoline powered hydraulic wood splitter. :) There's a book titled "Strange Encounters: Adventures of a Renegade Naturalist" by Daniel B. Botkin (2004) that has a hilarious chapter about the author's attempt to split rounds from a huge dead American elm. I lmao reading that chapter because I knew from firsthand experience just how frustrating splitting elm can be with wedges & sledgehammer. Where I live most people burn pinon pine & Utah or single-seed juniper. These are decent fuelwoods but I would have to drive pickup & trailer out to public lands to harvest them from the wild. The Siberian elm & Russian olive I cut on the property and haul it to the house in a wheelbarrow.

It's interesting that you mention that "old woodsman's poem" because I believe that I have an old cassette tape with that poem on it set to music. I believe that it's by a Scandinavian folk band whose name I can't recall.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 19 Aug 2010 #permalink

A correction: That poem was written in 1926 during a coal strike by Honor Goodhart and was set to music by the band Golden Bough in the 1980s. I have it on one of Golden Bough's cassettes.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 19 Aug 2010 #permalink

Flatbread with grilled vegetables is a good quick, sustainable recipe for me.

I don't press the oil or grind the flour, but I do grow at least some of the vegetables. I'm just getting in a crop of mung beans, which I intend to soak and mash as the basis of step 1 of this recipe.

1. Make batter, about as thick as crepe batter, with some mix of bean flour (mung, garbanzo...) and grain (whole wheat flour, rolled oats), plus water and salt.

2. Slice vegetables, and fry in oil. Onion, chile, potato, carrot, pea, etc. Add to batter, unless it was sliced very stringy.

3. Add more oil if necessary, pour a thin layer of batter. Turn.

4. Serve, potentially with cheese, leftovers, etc. as filling.

I forgot to mention, rather than sourdough cornbread, may I suggest corn sodabread.

Use sourdough starter in place of equivalent flour and water, then use 1/4 as much baking soda as the recipe calls for baking powder. The acid from the culture will react with the baking soda

It won't taste sour if the baking soda balances the starter, but the more subtle fermentation products will add a richness to the flavor of the finished cornbread.

Also a good strategy for pancakes and other baked goods.

reminds me of the time I made the "Easy" meal/snack of 7 layer dip from scratch. This 10 minute snack took 3 days to make... and I didn't even grow all the components.

By Roundbelly (not verified) on 20 Aug 2010 #permalink