" ... peas that are still babies in tenderness. Tall, golden kernels of corn with summer in every mouthful. Grown with care such as no peas or corn ever had before ... And all this just to make your mealtime life a little happier."
This 1953 advertisement for canned Green Giant Niblets represented a new, and ultimately destructive, way that Americans approached their food. Starting in World War II, as the workplace began to fill up with women who had replaced men serving in the military, cooking changed—not just in methods but in philosophy. Convenience foods trumped cooking from scratch. Industrialized food systems, which churned out Meals Ready to Eat for troops, were trumpeted as the key to food security and safety. And 60 years later, Americans are more distanced than ever from the origin and preparation of their meals.
"There was a huge preserved food industry to feed the soldiers, but also to get women to use not very good-tasting but convenient food," says chef Linda Watson of Raleigh, the author of Wildly Affordable Organic. "The message was, our families would be healthier if we had clean food coming out of the factory rather than dirty stuff that came out of the ground. It was a huge public relations triumph."
However, with the popularity of local farmers markets and community gardens, the legitimate concerns about factory-farmed meat and genetically modified produce, that thinking is falling out of favor. Watson's new book reacquaints us with the idea that cooking—in particular, cooking from scratch—is an act to be embraced rather than endured. She explains how to eat healthfully, but cheaply, on no more than $5 a day. And, in doing so, Watson implicitly raises questions of food policy and philosophy.
The seeds of Watson's book germinated in her taking the National Food Stamp Challenge. In 2007, participants, including politicians and anti-hunger activists, pledged to eat on no more than the average national food stamp allowance of $1 a meal. "It is realistic, but it's tough," Watson says.
The first shopping trip took more than an hour and required a rejuggling of the contents of the grocery cart. She learned that buying in bulk is cheaper—the unit price of small quantities will give you sticker shock—but those savings are lost if the food spoils before you use it.
Watson's many meal plans focus on basic ingredients, and in a handy chart she illustrates on which foods you should scrimp (store-brand olive oil and pasta) and on which you should splurge (use the savings to buy organic eggs and dairy from humanely raised chickens and cows).
For beginners, she recommends the "20-minute-a-day plan," which entails cooking part of a meal from scratch. If you haven't burned the house down or lopped off your fingers, then advance to the whole plan.
Full disclosure: I'm a kitchen klutz. But even I fixed a scrumptious Greek potato salad. A zesty vinaigrette took less than five minutes to make. And the dishes aren't austere, joyless endeavors akin to prison food. The varied menus include a Swiss chard frittata, pesto, pizza, hummus, and baked pears with cinnamon yogurt sauce. Even dried beans, which are a staple of many of the dishes, are refashioned in creative ways. And because dried beans are cheap, nutritious and low on the pesticide residue list, it's unnecessary to buy organic versions.
The green and thrifty section offers cooking plans per season, including tips for getting good deals at the farmers market. Another tip: The same foods found in the Hispanic food aisle cost less than in the non-ethnic aisle.
An essential tenet to healthy, cheap eating that our grandparents knew: Don't waste food. Recent statistics show that the average American household throws out a pound and a half of food a day. As a nation, a quarter to one-half of all food produced in the U.S. is wasted—and yet 15 percent of American households are considered "food insecure," according to the USDA.
So freeze leftovers. Freeze summer produce for the winter. Save water in which you cooked your vegetables or pasta for soup stock. Eating meat "nose to tail" is in fashion, so think of eating your produce from leaf to stem. "When you get Swiss chard, don't cut off the woody stems. Cook them with the onions," Watson explains. "I was surprised by how hard it was to squeeze the value out of the food," she adds, "but once I had the huge insight of how I can use every scrap, I started saying, what can I do to be efficient in cooking? I'm cooking at a higher level than I used to."
Watson's background is in project management, and that efficiency is reflected in the books' detailed budgets, tips and cooking steps. That much minutia initially can be daunting (although as someone who needs every recipe s-p-e-l-l-e-d out, I appreciated the level of detail), but hang with it: The book is intended to be a starting point; eventually you'll work out your own system.
There are several problems, though they're not with the book but with socioeconomic policies that encourage a McDonald's to be built (there are nearly 13,000 McDonald's in the U.S. alone, according to Nationmaster.com) while segregating entire neighborhoods—known as food deserts—from access to fresh produce.
While Watson's book demonstrates cooking from scratch doesn't take as long as you'd think, if you're a single parent working two jobs, then even 20 minutes is a luxury, let alone the time it takes to nurture a yogurt nest. If you live in an apartment complex, you may not even have room to grow tomatoes in a bucket.
Watson acknowledges her good fortune—and that of much of the middle class, shrinking though it may be. She lives three blocks from Whole Foods. She has a car and a kitchen and a bread machine—although her easy recipe for whisk bread requires no expensive culinary accoutrements.
"I was teaching at a food bank in California and met a woman who had three toddlers," Watson recalls. "She sat through my 20-minute-a-day class. At the end she said, 'I have five mouths to feed but I have only three spoons.' She talked about how she gets out of the grocery store with her kids and bags, and the bus will go by her because it doesn't want to pick up a woman with kids."
Wildly Affordable Organic can't solve these overarching social problems and the political inertia that compounds them. But the book can help readers incorporate small but crucial steps toward a healthier and more environmentally conscious society.
"The biggest challenge we face as a society is global warming," Watson says. "By reducing packaging and eating lower on the food chain, you can make a real difference every day. You can afford to eat like it matters, and it really does."