Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Food: Seasonal, local, and from the grocery store. A revolution we don't often recognize.

World War One Canadian poster urging Canadians to preserve food for the winter.

Recently we blogged here about hunting, fishing and diet.  In response to that thread, Rich posted this comment:
I've always thought that there should also be something about seasonality to how a person eats.

There's something about that first asparagus in early spring, digging new potatoes out of the garden, peaches in summer, or venison in the fall that makes you appreciate it more than just going to the store and buying whatever you want whenever you want.

Eating a fresh-picked peach (if you can find one) in December doesn't seem quite the same as eating yourself sick on home-grown peaches in July.
As I noted in my reply, there's actually a movement that espouses that view, that being the "Eat Local", or "localvore" movement.  Sort of in the spirit of old norm returns as a trend amongst the well educated and well read, this movement, inspired in part by people like Michale Pollan and in part by people like Joel Salatin, the concept is that a person ought to try to obtain their food from a reasonable distance around them.  That isn't really what Rich espoused, but its sort of a related concept, as it would incorporate seasonality by default.

Of course, depending upon where you lived, it'd cause you to eat a very spartan diet as well.  I've blogged about that somewhere here before, but because the search feature of this blog doesn't always seem to work really well on the older threads, I haven't found it. Still, this is one of those areas that taps into the theme of the blog, and for which there are all sorts of interesting permutations.

Dick Latham, unintentional localvore, with an antelope in Wyoming.  This photo first appeared on our May 2, 2009 entry.

A year or two ago I was defending a deposition in Sheridan Wyoming and the law office I was in had a giant poster of the view in town from the courthouse.   One of the things that was visible was a sign on a building advertising a grocery that bought and sold local vegetables. That's fairly amazing for a variety of reasons, the most significant of which is that in the early 20th Century there were enough vegetables being grown in the Sheridan area to market them commercially through a local grocer, something that certainly isn't the case now there, or anywhere in Wyoming.  Farming still goes on in the area, but not commercial vegetable farming.  All the farming is commercial hay farming or wheat, in that area.  Indeed, while there may be exceptions somewhere in the state, all the commercial farming I'm aware of in Wyoming is a hay crop, wheat, or corn.


Indeed, at least as late as the 1940s, it was still the case that there was enough of a local demand that my family's packing house, which had some farm ground next to it which it generally used for hay production, put in a crop of potatoes for local sale.  That may have occurred elsewhere in the state after that, but if it did, I don't know of it. That might have been the last commercial potato crop in the state.  I can't think of a single conventional food crop being raised anywhere in the state at this time for sale in grocery stores.  A farm near Alcova Wyoming raises a crop of sweet corn for direct sale to customers, who harvest it themselves, but that's a bit different.  Near Riverton Wyoming there are some farms that likewise grow raspberries and pumpkins for sale in that fashion.  About the closest we get to the commercial sale of locally grown crops, in town, at an established market, is the vending of Colorado peaches and chili peppers that will happen on a seasonal basis, with those vendors setting up in parking lots to make their sales.  That's not really quite the same thing, however.

What's replaced this is the huge food distribution system we now have throughout the Western world. We don't even think of this, but frankly, it's an amazing thing in and of itself, and an amazing thing to ponder, if perhaps a little scary in some ways.

 World War One vintage poster urging conservation of wheat.

Go into any town or city in the state, like any town or city in any state, and you are going to see some grocery store chain.  This city has Safeways, Albertsons, Smiths, and Natural Grocers.  At one time it had an IGA as well, but that was before the Smiths.  These are present in many towns.  Guernsey has a Jack & Jills.  I'm sure there are others I've missed, maybe even here in town.  We do have a couple of surviving small grocery stores, however, those being Grant Street Grocers and Braddis' (which is now a meat market).  And this is before even taking into account that the "big box" stores, like Wal Mart and Sam's Club also have grocery sections.  That doesn't explain this change in and of itself, of course. Safeway, for example, has been around since the 1930s and was one of the first really widespread chain stores in the United States.  But it's emblematic of the consolidation and systematization of the food supply system.

What's really changed it, however, is how process and most particularly transportation has been employed both to process food and deliver it everywhere.  The change is so vast, we can hardly grasp it.

Let's go back, for a moment to the earlier condition. And in doing that, let's go back one century.  If we were here in Wyoming on an unusually warm September day in 1914, rather than 2014, what would we be seeing on our tables.

Well, just running through the day, there's still be coffee (thank goodness) on the breakfast table. Coffee was one of the earliest widely distributed mass produced crop items in the world.  Arbuckle's was particularly popular in  the American West, and it dates back as a company to 1864.  But unless I was extremely eccentric, I would note, preparing the coffee would be  bit different.  I use a coffee maker now, like most coffee drinkers I suppose, and struggle to get enough coffee against the intake of my coffee drinking son.  My father, however, always drank instant coffee for some reason.  I can't really stand instant coffee now, but I did drink it at one time, and will sometimes if camping, just because it's easy.  Instant coffee came in just before the First World War, and by accounts the process to make it is similar to the current one.

 Washington's Prepared (instant) Coffee.  It was apparently pretty bad, but popular with soldiers as it was easy to make.

Okay, so much for what I'd drink, but what if you drank milk? Well, there too, it'd be available, but probably from a local dairy.  And indeed at one time my family owned the local "creamery", that being the the institution that processes and delivers the milk.


Former  Jersey Creamery building in Casper Wyoming.  Once an institution of nearly any decent sized town, these are now largely a thing of the past.

Most places, local creameries are a thing of the past, replaced by regional ones.  Oddly, at least one regional one that supplies this region notes that the milk goes basically straight from the farmer's cows to you, but those farmers aren't around here.  There are no longer any dairy herds here at all.  The old dairy isn't far from where I live, but it boards horses now and has for decades.

But still, so far no big difference. So what else? Well, I frankly usually have cereal for breakfast, and I have for most of my life.  My wife, on the other hand, during the school year cooks breakfast for the kids, a marker of her ranch background. So for the kids, breakfast most days hasn't changed much.  For cereal eaters, however, the story is different.

Some processed cereals were around in 1914, but not all that many.  The selection isn't what it is today.  Post is really the oldest cereal brand, and its been around since 1895, which makes it pretty darned old.  So you could eat cereal.  You could also eat oatmeal of course, or "porridge" as my mother called it.  You wouldn't be eating instant oatmeal, however.  There was no such thing.  You had to cook it.

 Corn Flakes advertisement from 1910.

On occasion, I'll cook oatmeal, and it does taste better, in my opinion, than the instant. It also takes more time.  It seems like it takes forever in fact, even though it really doesn't.  On odd occasions, when I've had Irish oatmeal here at the house, I've even cooked it the night before so as to save time the following morning.  But still, so far we're not seeing huge variety differences in our house.

You would, however, if you are one of those people who eats yogurt or drinks something exotic, like orange juice, at breakfast. Flat out not available in most places in the US in 1914.

Indeed, something like orange juice would have been exclusively home made, and rarely available.  Now, oranges are literally shipped in by ship year around, if not in season in the US.  Nobody shipped oranges in 1914 to the US.  It would have been a  seasonal crop, as would any single fruit crop.  Most of the year, no fruit.  This time of the year there would have been some, particularly apples in this region, perhaps from a tree out back.  Oranges, I'd note, were once sufficiently uncommon by mid winter that they were a common Christmas gift for children.

Perhaps we should leave the breakfast table and move on to other meals, although that proves in the case of midday to be a little more difficult.  Now at midday most people eat "lunch", although I often as not just skip it.  People in early eras didn't skip it, and they typically ate what we'd consider an enormous lunch.  For these reasons, it's practically beyond comparison. Depending upon what they did, they either ate a large home prepared meal they packed with them or went to a cafe, or ate at the house.  In any event, their lunches were more like our "dinners" or "supper", IE., the last (big) meal of the day.

Nothing in these meals was of the prepackaged type we see today.  No Lunchables or packaged cellophane wrapped sandwiches.  Nothing microwavable.  Unless you go out for lunch and stick to a pretty basic diet at that lunch, such as a beef sandwich or something, your lunch is different.

So is your evening meal, and in spades.

A lot of evenings we no doubt eat a meal that resembles one of a century ago, probably more than most families, particularly for this region. We have antelope, deer and a volunteer beef in the freezer.  While freezers were non existent a century ago, these meat sources would have all been fairly common here a century ago.  For quite a few folks around here, something they shot would appear on the dinner table from time to time, and beef was available.  Pork probably was, in small amounts, too.  Chicken, from local sources only, would have been too.

So what's different?  Well, we're talking 100% local.  Local beef, and local poultry, supplemented by local wild game.  Now, that's not common for most Americans.  

And normally it would have been fairly fresh too.  As in very fresh. Without very good refrigeration, you couldn't have kept meat for even more than a couple of days, unless it was of the salted or cured variety.

Which was around, to be sure. Corned beef and bacon are two good examples.  Corned beef and bacon will keep awhile, particularly as the corned beef of that day isn't the same thing, really, that people eat now.  Heavily salty, like hams of the days, it had to be boiled to drive the salt off in order to eat it.  Corned beef was a staple of European armies in this era for a reason, and it wasn't because its was tasty (which modern corned beef is).  And there were canned and "potted" meats by this time, for those who couldn't acquire fresh meat. But they were not popular daily items for most people, which is the same as today really.

Anything else on that dinner table likewise would probably have been fairly fresh, depending upon the time of the year, and highly local.  However, canning and preserving also existed, so canned vegetables and preserved vegetables were available other times of the year. Some sort of vegetables really keep, such as potatoes and onions, and these would have made a long presence into the looming winter.

 World War One vintage photograph, part of food preservation campaign.

What all that probably makes plain is that the diet was much less varied. That doesn't make it bad, I'll note, just less varied.  No Kiwis, hummus, yogurt, or any of the numerous other things people now routinely eat.  No canned refried beans.  No peppers in December.  No lettuce in January.  No grapes in March.  And so on.

Well, so much for a century ago. If we take it back one century further, to 1814, and therefore take out anything not being mass produced and packaged or canned, we're left with basically one item that was preserved and distributed, that being corn in the form of whiskey.  There was food that could be preserved, of course, by corning, smoking, or drying, including both meats and vegetables of various type.  The meat products are fairly obvious to us upon considering it, but probably the vegetable products, like dried beans, less so.

So to what can we attribute this huge change. Well, factory processing is surely one, and that's spread from its beginnings in the late 19th Century to the present point where even whole meals are prepared hundreds or thousands of miles from where they will be eaten, and shipped.  And that's caused an element of centralization in the system that didn't previously exist.

 Cutting fish for canning as sardines.

If we stop and think about this for a moment, the nature of it is really amazing. We receive vegetables from hundreds of miles, even thousands of miles away.  Lettuce is harvested in California, or northern Mexico, and transported to grocery stores all over North America. That required a pretty amazing transportation system, which the case of the United States is entirely dependent upon highway using trucks.  Or consider oranges, which we can now get year around.  Oranges are harvested in Texas, or Florida, or Belize and taken by, perhaps, ships to one spot, and then trucked to far distant points, and yet they are still affordable.

That they are still affordable is in and of itself amazing.  Each bears a fractional share of the transportation costs, and yet that turns out to be quite small in the end.  Of course, some of the costs are borne indirectly, such as the costs of maintaining and building the highways, but still it comes out pretty cheaply.  Its so efficient in fact that even if the environmental costs are added in, according to Freakanomics, it still comes out ahead of at least some alternative options.

This is a revolution that's hard for us to appreciate today, but its truly an amazing one.  I'm not saying, of course, that a person shouldn't till their own soil, and I've maintained substantial gardens of my own in the past, and my father always did.  Growing your own was its own reward, and the taste of freshly grown is indeed better from that grown long distances away.  And there's something to be said for maintaining local agriculture, the loss of which is disturbing on multiple levels.  Rather, what we note here is the change itself, which has been enormous.

1 comment:

Pat and Marcus said...

Oddly enough, the USDA has an item related to this topic in their blog today: http://blogs.usda.gov/2014/09/30/the-easy-way-to-find-local-food-usda-launches-new-local-food-directories/