Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Hunger and Appetite

I've been thinking about hunger recently. Our local food pantry has been participating in a survey of "Hunger in America", which is directed at people who utilize food pantries, soup kitchens, and other food distribution programs. I volunteered to help administer the survey, which required asking some perfect strangers rather intimate questions. "In the last 12 months, were you ever hungry but didn't eat because you couldn't afford enough food?...was your child ever hungry but you just couldn't afford more food?...did you or other adults in your household ever not eat for a whole day because there wasn't enough money for food?" (Emphasis mine.) I'm happy to say that no one so far answered "yes" to that one but they did say they had been required to choose between food and paying for utilities or rent - and answered "yes" to the first two.

It is hard to think of people being actually, physically hungry in our overfed and obese nation. But it is happening. Our local pantry is trying to meet the needs of more and more people. One of the other volunteers, who also works at a soup kitchen, said that they have had to cut back on second helpings so there is enough to go around at lunch, causing some tension.

The economic problems in our country are causing other people to cut back on eating out and learn to cook at home. I was reading Jane Brody's suggestions for eating on a reduced budget and found that I am already doing most of the basic, simple things she offers. These amount to using relatively unprocessed food (or what a recently discovered blogger calls first-order food) and cooking them at home. But it occurred to me in reading it that part of the problem for most of us is not hunger, it is finding the appetite to eat these sensible food choices. Doesn't this make your mouth water? "Cabbage...more than your money's worth of nutrients...at only 17 calories a cup eaten shredded and raw." (from the article) I thought of this with my new acquaintances at the food bank, too. They are being given fairly basic foods that will keep them from being hungry, and should be nutritious. (Although there are more canned goods and boxed cereals than I like.) But what does this do when what they are really hungry for a pizza or Chinese take-out?

We know the reasons to eat mostly unprocessed food, especially local produce or that you have grown yourself. It is more nutritious, more healthful (NOT "healthy", please!) better for the environment, and sometimes less expensive (at least, it costs less than buying prepared food or going to restaurants). Michael Pollan, in his book In Defense of Food has pretty much laid it out for us. But his conclusion is pretty depressing: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Where's the fun in that???

What it means is that we are all in for some serious attitude adjustment. We have to relearn our food instincts, unlearn the first preference for sugary fatty easily assimilated foods, half of which are pizza. Fortunately, there is an army of food bloggers out there with ideas. I even know one that is all about cooking and eating kale. We can use spices, seasonings, oils and vinegars to make our basic foods more palatable. But elaborate preparations with exotic ingredients may require more time and money than are practical on a day-by-day basis.

There will always be holidays and feasts, and everyone deserves a treat now and then. But I think that the most essential step in coming to grips with "the food problem" is learning to appreciate the very nature of the food and then simple ways to prepare it. It requires rethinking your expectations and retraining your appetite. It probably helps, too, if you are just a little hungry.

Simple Vegetables

Here are a couple of easy everyday ideas for vegetables. Disclosure: I grew up in the South so don't work well with raw or lightly steamed unadorned vegetables.

Carrot and Raisin Salad
Raw carrots, grated (large size holes) example: 2 large
Black raisins example: 1/4 cup
Commercial mayonnaise just to moisten example: 1 teaspoon

Mix and serve immediately, or will keep for a couple of days in the refrigerator. Amazingly sweet.

Roasted Vegetables

This is so well-known and obvious that I hate to mention it, but just in case...

Any fleshy dense vegetable - carrots, yams good example
Scant olive oil
Dried herb like oregano or basil
Salt, pepper

Peel, cut into roughly equivalent sticks, put on baking sheet, cover with a film of olive oil, bake at 400°. They become incredibly sweet and soft inside. Potatoes (cut in discs) like this too, and I've also done brussels sprouts though they get crunchy on the outside. I was shocked that I liked beets roasted with peel on, then sliced and a little vinegar added. On the Splendid Table, the first recommendation is often "turn on the oven to 400°". And have you tried asparagus cooked this way?

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