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Attitudes Toward "Cheap" vs. Expensive


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I've been reading John Thorne's book "Pot on the Fire: Further Exploits of a Renegade Cook", and in his essay "Cioppino in the Rough" I came across an intriguing paragraph (p. 298):

"Peasant food is rooted as a matter of course in what is abundant and cheap, enhanced when possible by calculatedly careful touches of the expensive: the grating of Parmesan, the paper-thin sliver of proscuitto, the drizzle of olive oil. Our cooking lays its emphasis on ample provision of the relatively expensive and relegates what is abundant and cheap to the background - where it is sometimes not eaten at all. This means that very expensive items traditionally used primarily to point up what we ourselves push to the back of the plate - say, the forty dollar truffle shaved over the bowl of pasta - make us anxious, since they fly in the face of our sense of value. This is why the 'Average American,' who would think nothing - should the cash be at hand - of treating himself to a sixteen-ounce sirloin, be he connoisseur or no, still considers it only sensible, even today, to replace 'costly' olive oil with that pressed from cottonseed."

I'm curious to know what others think of this idea that Americans tend to reverse the roles of "cheap" and "expensive" ingredients and/or foods in our diets?

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Generalizations are ALWAYS misleading, if not downright disingenuous and mischievous. They also could partake of profound ignorance or deliberate falsification. Harsh words? I am sick of the US culture, foodways or whatever always beeing seen as naive, flawed and inferior to the imagined superiority of European or peasant foodways.

Without going into personalities, let me emphasize the sheer ignorance of those who have not studied the history of peasant economies, agriculture, food and nutrition in Europe and the world, particularly Italy. "Abundancë" was never a term to be used in any context with the Italian serfs. An animal-like existence, sandwiched between wars and rapine, living off whatever grains like millets, chestnuts etc. and surrendering all their grain to their overlords was the rule. Even right down to the modern period, we have historical recorded accounts of woment recounting when over Christmas a family had but a single egg. In France, families tore salad greens with their teeth into a common bowl. The poverty of peasantry was hideous.

What utter nonsense then, to claim, the development of ANY peasant cuisine. Whatever did develop did so FAR REMOVED FROM THE TRUE PEASANT. Those who had had the luxury of food were of another class of yeomen, landowners, etc. Peasants ate to survive and rarely saw meat, let alone hams. The Irish peasantry ate 6 lbs of potatoes and some milk or buttermilk, day in and day out. Wheat was not a part of their diet, nor butter nor anything else. Minimalist survival diets: France, England, Greece, Italy, the list is endless. I have a friend working as a Peace Corp volunteer in Moldova today. I doubt many know the sheer desperation present in rural areas there, or in Russia or Ukraine for centuries. There is little to make that food palatable, ever, in the kitchens of New York.

I have lived that life myself when food is rice of horrific quality & salt, and equally bad moldy wheat & sorghum chapaties and salt. If lucky, then some potatoes with black pepper. Year after year. What aid or relief grain goes to these countries is branded "for cattle feed only". There is much corruption on both sides on food aid with the officials actuall involved and political parties skimming off huge dividends.

Why do we have repeated peasant wars in France? Why do we have certain crusades like the Second, to defuse simmering peasant uprising, when the Church had become a multinational conglomerate controlling the wool business & thus sheep movement policies throughout Europe [to the detriment of farmers]?

The abundance of America, be it North or South, was a profound gift of Providence. That someone can make a living writing about food, and gull innocents to their POV is entirely due to the greatness of this country and its bounty.

This dewy-eyed fallacious nonsense makes me so angry. I can give a year by year account of the US agricultural and social history from 1837 onward, correlating that with the history of the US currency & economics, e.g. 1867, then the rise of the JP Morgans & the currency speculations, what effects these had on our farmers and ordinary people etc. WHY we are so locked into innate fears of food issues, abbondanza, the continuing influx of immigrants all of whom prostrate to this country and its peace, order and ABUNDANCE.

All of this supercilious nonsense, based on some imaginary European stndard of excellence makes me sick. WHY is EVOO better than cottonseed oil? Because someone told you it is, because then you learnt to acquire a taste for its unique flavor. A few years ago, bluefin tuna belly was thrown to the dogs in the Carolinas; today it is a king's ransom. Even in Japan, fatty tuna was deprecated in the past. Only in the modern century has it become the rage. How can a fish be dogfood one generation, ambrosia the next? What changed? Why has not Inuit foodways caught on? Not snobbish enough? Not cut super fine with super expensive knives? So what defines excellence? Opinionated tastemakers?

Prosciutto? Our COUNTRY HAMS ARE PROSCIUTTO par excellence. We merely chooe to eat them OUR style, NOT the EUROPEAN way. So does that make us foolish or inferior? You decide. Anyone is also welcome to buy an 18month old Kentucky Ham and slice it thin and see what happens.

I feel that foodwriters enjoy making people feel deprived, creating needs where none existed before. If the public is so shallow & gullible as not to know its own mind, well....

Why do we not thank our country and become more aware of the many traditions that have birthed its foodways and learn to appreciate our history, our own contributions to humanity for a change? American foodways, modern or traditional, very definitely rely on seasonal and local abundance to ensure economic survival of a huge percentage of rural Aerica to this day, even those not engaged in any agro-industrial activities.

Much of America lives very poor. If Thorne would care to join me, I could educate him on many things he chooses not to understand about the food situation in our country. 23% of our children are below the poverty line in most states, 50% in the region where I live. 50% of the adults in the surroundng counties are below the poverty line. They and their parents HAVE to depend on what is ABUNDANT in markets and nature [deer, fish]. The political economy of our agriculture dictates what is and what is NOT; but these foods are not necessarily conducive to good nutrition.

Recently, the Cornell Cooperative Extension, in partnership with local non-profits, is trying to sign up underserved, low-income families into local CSA with area organic farmers. Called HEALTHY FOOD FOR ALL, this program ensures all-you-can eat fresh vegetables that ordinarily cost too much [compared to mayo, potatoes ,white, bread, chicken and salami, made abundant & affordable by our political economy] for $30/month per family. We have non-existent funding after a very successful program last year and 2009. Demand is huge.

I have spent my life working with cropping systems research in 3 major universities. I would love to have someone like Thorne devote some serious time writing about the serious problems we are facing, instead of nattering away about clam chowder. Such wonderful God-given gifts should not be wasted on the utter trivialities he and many other food writers dedicate themselves to. It would be so wonderful if these talents were harnessed to serve America, e.g. helping find donors for the above program. But as you and I well know, when unconditional altruism is mentioned, everyone disappears like the morning dew.

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Without going into personalities, let me emphasize the sheer ignorance of those who have not studied the history of peasant economies, agriculture, food and nutrition in Europe and the world, particularly Italy. "

..This dewy-eyed fallacious nonsense makes me so angry...

...If the public is so shallow & gullible as not to know its own mind, well....

I hope these statements aren't meant as a personal attack about my posing a question. Just to clarify, I am not passing judgement on the passage I posted above, I just thought it was something interesting to discuss. As such, I think a good discourse on the matter could be on the table.

v.gautum, you have brought up some interesting insights and opinions, and I'll be sure to reply to them over the weekend as I have more time. I hope others will chime in as well.

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I can see the abundance argument. Yes, we have an abundance of natural resources here in the United States that is the envy of the world. Europe invented the zero lot line.

At the same time, people live here with this astounding abundance surrounding them, in poverty. Hungry.

We have room and resources. I don't know if it is education or simple ambition. I just don't know.

As for me, I always look to the "peasant" food - or the simply good food. If you raise or rear your own, you can and will take the pick. If you have to send the pick up the chain, well then you learn to prepare the culls, in a most tasty way.

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First of all, I think v gautam was replying to the original question and was not “attacking the messenger”

As for the original question, No, I don’t think Americans reverse the roles of cheap/expensive ingredients. From the excerpt you have provided it is appears Thorne is “cherry picking” his argument. He is making an assertion, presenting that assertion as fact, and then making an argument based off of what is really just an incorrect assertion.

The notion that sirloin (or beef in general) is a luxury item is quite antiquated. While throughout history, beef has been prohibitively expensive for most people, our current (American) food system encourages the production of beef in CAFOs with the use of government subsidized corn resulting in beef that is probably the cheapest the world has ever known. Beef is so inexpensive, I would argue the price of a quality bottle of EVOO could easily exceed price of 1 pound of sirloin.

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I'm not sure that I follow the argument, however I believe that v. gautam's point is well taken. My grandmother who immigrated from Czarist Russia in 1910 would tell be about the delight of a slice of black bread smeared with chichen fat as a delight as a child and the fear of her father not having the gold coin to pay the landlord and being put off there little piece of land. Yes, for my grandmother America was paradise. But that does not mean we can't learn something from those old peasants.

Respectfully,

Jmahl

The Philip Mahl Community teaching kitchen is now open. Check it out. "Philip Mahl Memorial Kitchen" on Facebook. Website coming soon.

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First of all, I think v gautam was replying to the original question and was not “attacking the messenger”

Florida, you make a good point. It's entirely possible I mis-read/mis-understood the comments I quoted above (5 days tethered to a computer in an office job can do that to you), so my apologies if I got that wrong.

Now that that's out of the way... :-)

v gautum, you make some excellent points about people that have had to do without certain things out of sheer necessity. There's certainly nothing glamorous or trendy about that, no matter you spin it. I think that's something important to keep in mind.

But also think there is an interesting notion that Thorne is trying to get across, all that aside, that might be worth considering. Let's just take middle-upper middle class peoples in industrialized societies as an example. Not a lot of those folks are eating offal for instance (unless, as you point out, some food writer or other influential tells them that it's heaven). But lower-income folks utilize offal quite a bit more, because it's what's affordable. So I think that Thorne is saying there's that reversal there - instead of offal being the foundation of a meal, it's not even considered - instead, [insert expensive meat here] is the every day standard.

I agree with your points that what is artisinal, valuable, expensive, etc. is due largely in part to where you are, what the local cuisine is, what people think of it, etc. I think for me, that's what makes it so interesting to examine what different people do with the food that is local to their region. And how they feel about it.

And I'll take so-called peasant food over haute cuisine any day. It takes a hell of a lot of skill and ingenuity to make fantastic food from "nothing" than it does to "create" from an endless larder.

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A lot of confusing, albeit great, ideas and theories.

It's the statement about sauting a steak in cottonseed oil in the O. P. that gets me going.

Big secret here: People are cheap. Joe Schmoe decides to buy his wife a diamon ring. He'll seek out the cheapest price. Same for a luxury car. And, after spending my entire carreer in the hospitality biz, the same attitude prevails. It's not uncommon to see someone pay for a "white tablecloth" meal with a coupon or some kind of a discount.--Cottonseed oil for sauting steak.......

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Generalizations are ALWAYS misleading, if not downright disingenuous and mischievous. They also could partake of profound ignorance or deliberate falsification. Harsh words? I am sick of the US culture, foodways or whatever always beeing seen as naive, flawed and inferior to the imagined superiority of European or peasant foodways.

Here here.

I had exactly the same reaction to the original passage, and agree with everything else that v. gautam wrote as well.

Can you pee in the ocean?

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I agree with what Gautam said.

and i have a related point of my own.... to me, (and let it be said that I lack any figures to back me up so it is total conjecture) many of us, particularly in the US have become so divorced from the actual production of our food, that it has become a kind of abstract concept. When we have no money, instead of stuffing our apartments with tubs of tomatoes etc, our first thought is to clip coupons and buy weird semi chemical food.

On the other hand, for some food becomes a holy grail, something to seek out the rare and fantastic, and on the uglier side, something to parade our knowledge and connoisseurship as something to prove we are better, richer, more artistically sensitive, a better gourmand/foodie that others.

and another issue... Europe sucks too. It is not all glorious peasants cheefully working and coming home at night and enjoying their rough bread and dab of olive oil. As Gautam pointed out, the past has not been pretty. And in many ways, the present is more American that you may think.

Us rural products are every bit as interesting as non us ones!

I have tried to write this in as inoffensive tone as possible. It is not meant to offend. but perhaps provide some thought or discussion.

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