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 V.17 No.22 | May 29 - June 4, 2008 

GastroLogic

How to Cook a Chupacabra

Real or perceived, the food crisis can be tamed

Feeding a family of four on $50 a week starts here.
Feeding a family of four on $50 a week starts here.

America’s entrance into WWII signaled the end of the Great Depression. As the war effort ratcheted up employment, the country was at last pulled out of its second-longest recession. Americans were relieved to once again have work, but food shortages meant there was little to purchase with their still-meager earnings. Ration cards dictated how much food was allotted to each person, while pocketbooks still directed what could be purchased, rationed or not.

It was about this time that M.F.K. Fisher wrote How to Cook a Wolf, believing as she did that rationing shouldn’t interfere with one’s “selfish comfort” taken from food. As worried housewives fought to survive this new kind of drought, Fisher put pen to paper and created a handbook that detailed how to ride out the trappings of war with wit, grace and common sense.

The wolf Fisher sought to tame was one visible not only to American housewives hoarding eggs and butter, but to the world. Today Americans are once again hearing the wolf sniff at our back doors, but we have yet to get a good look at it.

Naming the Wolf

“Of course, it is difficult, in spite of the obvious changes in our physical problems since How to Cook a Wolf was first published in 1942, to say truthfully and exactly when we are at war.” Fisher, introduction to How to Cook a Wolf’s revised 1951 edition

When a farmer goes to tend his herd and discovers a goat has died in the night, he'll do his best to determine what killed his animal. And if that farmer sees his goat has been drained of blood, that the only wounds visible are those made by fangs, he'll rush to tell the other farmers, only to find that their goats, too, have been sucked dry.

As the farmers gather, they'll ask each other, “Did you see it?” Each might say something like, “I only saw its eyes and how they glowed,” or “He was running away so that I only saw the ridge on his back.”

So they'll piece together what they each saw and conclude that it was no wolf that hunted their goats, but a chupacabra. Word will spread, and soon sightings will be rumored in all the world’s corners.

One by one, as each chupacabra is captured, it will be revealed to be no more than a wolf. Rendered unrecognizable by mange or starvation, the wolf is simply clothed in fear and uncertainty, but is nonetheless a wolf.

Today’s rising food prices and shortages, like the disguised wolf, have yet to be pinned down. Like the farmers and villagers, scientists and experts have gathered to identify what's caused our woes. Each has caught their own glimpse: Environmentalists see climate change, class activists see unequal distribution of wealth, and economists see market instability and growing demand. As consumers piece these glimpses together, a chupacabra begins to take shape.

Furthering the crisis are the market speculators who jump on fear and uncertainty and turn it into profit. While the farmers tend to their dead goats, the speculators prey on them. As they trade commodities and futures, prices skyrocket at the same pace that consumers panic. Much like the resulting recession that may be taking place, it’s a cycle. Though the wolf has graced our doorstep before, few recognize it, and some will prosper while others perish.

Regardless of the nature of the beast, wolf or chupacabra, it’s a beast all the same. Before it can be tamed it must be caught. To catch it, we must first know what it is.

How to Catch the Chupacabra

“I see that ever since I was married, well over fifty years ago, I have been living on a war budget without realizing it! I never knew before that using common sense in the kitchen was stylish only in emergencies.” Fisher's grandmother

My grocery bills were rising, and my concern was growing; so too were the bills and concerns of my friends. As we gathered one day, our children playing within earshot, our conversation turned to the food crisis. I had been wondering how everyone else was faring and took this opportunity to find out.

I was laying down cold, hard cash for “necessities” like fleur de sel and saffron while others were deciding between milk for their children and meat for the whole family.

I began cornering my friends and grilling them about their finances. What they told me was fascinating, and at times, startling.

One friend, Courtney, made the biggest impression. With a husband, a son and another baby on the way, their family was feeling the strain. Courtney had given up her teaching job to be a stay-at-home mom, which effectively cut her family’s income in half. Eking by on less than $38,000 a year, her small family was growing faster than paychecks. Mortgage payments had risen to more than $1,000 a month while their grocery budget shrank to $50 a week. She had her back against the door trying to keep the chupacabra out.

Wait a minute$50 a week? I told her there was no way they could buy enough food for that measly amount, that they were crazy to try. I mean, $50 would barely cover a week's worth of proteins in my house. I couldn’t fathom how they were eating anything on that shoestring budget that wouldn’t immediately be rejected by their stomachs.

Americans now have to choose between food and fuel, and choosing food leads to more decisions. Organic foods are the first to be crossed off shopping lists, followed by name-brand products. Many shoppers are dealing with rising prices by buying less and doing their best to make what they can afford last as long as possible.

Of course, this isn’t news to anyone. We’ve all heard the reports and witnessed it firsthand at the grocery store. I’ve seen more carts filled with nothing but generic products in recent months than at any other time in my life. The visual effect of a shopping cart loaded with foods in identical yellow packaging, combined with the bleak description Courtney so candidly offered up, really drove home the reality of the situation for me.

As a “foodie,” it wasn’t unusual for me to spend more on a tiny jar of Dijon mustard with crème de cassis than some people spend on two meals. I was laying down cold, hard cash for “necessities” like fleur de sel and saffron while others were deciding between milk for their children and meat for the whole family.

I took a long, hard look at my finances and pantry and came to an embarrassing conclusion. Little by little, over time, I had become a mega-consumer. I fooled myself into thinking I was responsible and conscientious because I stuck to a budgeta flexible budget, but a budget nonetheless. I took a list to the supermarket, and though it was more of a starting point than a set plan, I had it in my hand. I didn’t waste food; I only threw out what had gone bad because I’d forgotten it was in the fridge.

It wasn’t that I didn’t fear the big, bad chupacabra. I was trying to convince myself that it either didn’t exist or that hadn’t found its way to my house.

How to Distribute Your Virtue

“It is good, now when war and its trillion grim surprises haunt all our minds, to talk with older humans about what they have done in their days to fool the wolf.” Fisher

After some discussion, my husband and I agreed that there was no reason we couldn’t limit our food purchases to the same $50 a week that our friends had no choice in.

We allotted $50 each week for three weeks. Any money leftover from one week would be added to the next week’s budget.

I took stock of my pantry and headed out to gather our provisions. Honestly, I had no idea what I was doing that first week. I wandered up and down aisles looking for sale items and trying to reconcile my budget with my menu, furiously tapping away with my little stylus on my phone’s calculator. I eventually decided on five-and-a-half pounds of lean ground beef, 10 pounds of russet potatoes, eight ounces of button mushrooms, a bag of salad mix, frozen veggies and basics like milk, bread, peanut butter and jelly.

My total bill was $43.99. By the end of the week I had spent five more dollars stocking up on milk, bringing my total to $48.99.

Meals that first week were simple and sometimes not very filling. They also tended to be low in flavor while high in calories. We ate meatloaf and mashed potatoes twice, sloppy joes and hamburgers wedged in place of our normal menu of expensive meat cuts, fresh asparagus, Swiss chard and gourmet pastas.

It was a complete departure from our usual fare. So while we were excited about keeping whatever creature was tailing us at bay, mealtime was no longer something we looked forward to.

This was especially hard on us. As a family, we enjoy eating and treat each meal as an opportunity to try new things and explore cultures by way of a fork. Now our plates offered up serving after serving of depressingly bland food.

I knew I could do better. While I was growing up, my mother managed to bring tasty food to the table without breaking the bank. She didn’t have a choice. Money was in as short supply then as corn is now. She knew the wolf well and by name: My father was an Army man, and it didn’t pay much. For week two, I turned to the recipes she relied on to keep her family of five well-fed.

With more than two pounds of ground beef from the previous week and $34.51 worth of new groceries, including a whole chicken, I based my menu on childhood favorites that incorporated less-costly substitutions for expensive items.

Tortillas were made from scratch, and a pot of beans bubbled endlessly on the stove. I let nothing go to waste. Every bit of food found its way into pots and pans; every leftover morsel treated like gold, carefully packed away for another meal.

From a single chicken, I had enough meat for four meals and two quarts of stock. I made chicken à la king using milk and stock rather than cream and eggs, and I served it with rice instead of pastry. There were fajitas that used frozen bell peppers in place of fresh, taquitos and more beans.

A real treat was the Bolognese. I realized that of all the sauces I like to toss on pasta, this was remarkably inexpensive and well-suited to substitutions. With only ground beef, vegetable odds and ends, milk, butter and wine from when we were living high on the hog, we feasted for two nights.

How to Carve the Chupacabra

“For several years before France fell, Paris newspapers ... ran irate letters from old-fashioned chefs predicting that sure as shooting something awful would happen to the whole country unless the young people forgot their new fad for ... grilled steak-with-watercress and went back intelligently to the rich cuisine des sauces of their fathers.” Fisher

It occurred to me, as I was once again staring at a mound of ground beef, that I was much more resourceful than my latest meals suggested. I knew plenty about French food, and the most important thing I knew was it wasn’t expensive. Most French dishes came about through the ingenuity of peasants making the most of what they had. They made castoffs taste good.

I mean, why eat hamburgers when you could be eating bifteck haché à la Lyonnaise? With basically the same ingredients and a little red wine, ground beef is transformed into a rich cake that hardly resembles America's typical, mundane patties.

I went even further. With pork chops on sale, I stumbled upon a recipe that rivaled many restaurants’ treatment of the cut. Fishing an old jar of cornichons from the back of my fridge and dipping into my beloved Dijon, I fashioned a côtes de porc vigneronnes. Tart and supple, the "grape growers' pork chops" added vigor to our table and brought our taste buds back to life.

This was during our third week on a tightened budget. Our tab came in just under $50. I spent more on staples like sugar in order to replenish our basic supplies, but I still had nearly $20 left from the total $150 allowed for the three-week period.

I was no closer to exposing the chupacabra for what it really was, but I knew it was a beast I could beat. I had learned that it conquers through fear and insecurity. It distracts us with its indeterminate identity. Debating its origins only focuses the attention elsewhere. The only way to take down a beast you don’t know is to never let it out of your sight.

Serving the Chupacabra

“Or you can broil the meat, fry the onions, stew the garlic in the red wine ... and ask me to supper. I’ll not care, really, even if your nose is a little shiny, so long as you are self-possessed and sure that wolf or no wolf, your mind is your own and your heart is another’s and therefore in the right place.” Fisher

Throughout my experiment (that I’m proud to say has yet to end), I read every article and watched every newscast that discussed the latest food-crisis developments. I watched as corn, wheat and eggs increased in price and oil surpassed the $130-a-barrel point. With each new detail came more possible explanations. Fingers were pointed and blame was assigned.

I stopped caring about what experts and pundits had to say. Their weighing-in has done little to explain or resolve the crisis.

While I did learn a few new tricks in the kitchenwho knew you can use powdered meringue as an egg substitute?this experiment taught me something else. World leaders and economic gurus may eventually uncover the true identity of our chupacabra, but they can’t keep it at bay forever. It will always come back.

As this cycle of recession and shortages plays out, it’s almost certain that another will surface in the future. And as long as the possibility of famine exists, we’ve fixed nothing. Economic adjustments and revised policies are only short-term fixes.

Being wasteful and taking the food supply for granted attract the chupacabras, the wolves. They can smell it and wait just out of sight for an opportunity to advance. While we’re reveling in prosperity and plenty, they are sniffing at our thresholds, waiting for the right time to latch on.

It may be time to stop treating food as a commodity. That something so basic and so widely relied upon could become nothing more than a ticket to riches for the opportunistic seems crass. For a society that strives to move ever-forward, how we handle the world’s most basic of needs seems so archaic it calls to mind feudalism.

Instead of waiting for governments to resolve the crisis by enacting hastily thrown-together legislation, some suggest the real solution lies in eliminating investors’ ability to manipulate prices through trading futures. Groups such as the Centre for Research on Globalization say food prices shouldn't be at the mercy of the markets. For them, and, increasingly, families like mine and Courtney’s, the real wolf is obvious.

 

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