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    Happy 2019! It's a new year--time for a restorative. Me? Bok choy broth with tofu for lunch. The purple tinge is not your hangover talking to you--I added purple and gold "black" carrots to the bowl and it got a little Rose Parade on me.

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    Copyright 2008-2019Slow Food Fast. All writing and images on this blog unless otherwise attributed or set in quotes are the sole property of Slow Food Fast. Please contact DebbieN via the comments form for permissions before reprinting or reproducing any of the material on this blog.

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    SlowFoodFast sometimes addresses general public health topics related to nutrition, heart disease, blood pressure, and diabetes. Because this is a blog with a personal point of view, my health and food politics entries often include my opinions on the trends I see, and I try to be as blatant as possible about that. None of these articles should be construed as specific medical advice for an individual case. I do try to keep to findings from well-vetted research sources and large, well-controlled studies, and I try not to sensationalize the science (though if they actually come up with a real cure for Type I diabetes in the next couple of years, I'm gonna be dancing in the streets with a hat that would put Carmen Miranda to shame. Consider yourself warned).

The Dirty Roots of Veg-phobia

In one of my favorite Doonesbury cartoons, a very old one from the early 1970s when hippies still had a trace of hip about them, it’s Zonker’s turn to cook dinner, and he serves his housemates a big bowl of salad.

Mike Doonesbury peers into the bowl suspiciously and says, “Hey Zonker, the lettuce is dirty!”

“Yes, but it’s clean dirt! Ecologically pure dirt! No chemical additives–you’ll love it!”

Mike and Bernie opt for McDonald’s.

Somehow, though, the way they agree on it suggests the understanding of the early 1970s: McDonald’s was cheap, it was easy to find in your town, but it wasn’t really dinner, it was what you did when there was nothing decent in the fridge.

For decades now, government health agencies, the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, and whole parades of morning talk show guests have been advocating that Americans eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, and juices don’t count. The studio audience members, mostly soccer mom-looking women, only with impeccable makeup and pristinely unwrinkled clothes, bob their heads on cue at this wisdom.

But nobody’s gotten serious about how veg-phobic most people suddenly become when they actually approach the vegetable aisle in the supermarket, and no one’s taking enough pictures of what’s really in the fridge or on the cutting board most nights in most houses. All I can say is that many, many of them, if they buy vegetables at all, buy prepared or precut vegetables instead of bulk. Why?

Bulk vegetables–a whole head of cabbage or lettuce or broccoli or cauliflower, a bunch of celery or carrots–are bulky. Heavy. Hard to lift and hard to maneuver into those thin plastic produce bags.

They’re also round. They take up a lot of space in the refrigerator. They don’t stack neatly and they don’t necessarily fit into the shallow, measly vegetable drawer that comes with today’s Lean Cuisine-friendly slimline refrigerators.

They require washing, and here I wonder if we’re getting to the part people are most squeamish about. There’s…there’s (I can’t say it) … there’s DIRT on them!

Why washing it off scares people so much these days I have no idea, but maybe it’s all that liquid hand sanitizer and overly perfumed liquid hand soap that have poisoned the atmosphere this past 10 years or so. When your soap company can convince you to buy watered-down soap in a decorator squirt bottle, your friendly produce-packing plant can probably sell you overpriced broccoli florets in a small plastic bag.

Brand Me! Or, How to Commercialize Cabbage

Earlier this year I made a joke about the marketing campaign for fresh bulk vegetables, along the lines of “Red Cabbage. It’s What’s For Salad.” I was thinking how nice it would be if people could be motivated to buy ordinary fresh bulk vegetables–no brand names, no packages–every week as a matter of habit the way they did 30 years ago, instead of the way they now fill their carts with brightly colored boxes of processed stuff. I thought it would probably take a satirical approach like the Ad Council’s Got Milk? public service ad campaign.

Clearly I wasn’t thinking hard enough about the real issue driving the relentless replacement of food with boxes. As with the Internet, it’s branding. And not surprisingly, there’s an awful lot of spam out there (hints of The Viking Song in the background…and a word of caution: as with many Monty Python sketches, this one contains more than a few off-color lines and screeching in addition to the main ingredient.)

The packaged food industry is way ahead of me and has been for years. They’ve figured out how to put brand names on cabbage or broccoli or carrots so they can charge more for it–several times more per pound. And they’re doing enormously well with this ploy.

Ordinary shoppers — your neighbors, your co-workers, your mom, and you too, I bet— have in the past week or so bought a little packaged bag of pre-washed spinach, Euro Salad Mix, baby-cut carrots, or broccoli and cauliflower florets. To save time, you tell yourself. Because it’s more gourmet, perhaps. And you’re getting your vegetables in, you think. But it becomes a habit, and a needlessly expensive one.

This kind of thinking about vegetables is becoming dangerously ingrained among American shoppers. People think they’re eating healthy without the fuss, but then they complain how expensive vegetables are. And no wonder, if they shop like this.

Because the few vegetables you get in the precut packs in pristine plastic bags are less than a pound. 12 oz. is typical for broccoli and cauliflower florets, 5-6 oz. for pre-washed mixed lettuces. Prices are at least $2.00 per bag, and often on up to $3.50 or more. Yes, Virginia, that’s anything between $3 and $9/lb for the “convenience” of just opening a bag.

I bring this up here because packaged, pre-shredded cabbage, an 8-oz. bag no less, was listed, actually listed, as a key ingredient in a recent (and no I didn’t really mean to be picking on them again so soon) Bon Appetit feature recipe online. One for “Fishcakes and Coleslaw”. It was part of a slideshow series illustrating “gourmet cooking on a budget”, glossy photos with convincing price tags included–but this one recipe cost $14 for four servings!

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