When food isn’t food

05Apr11

I posted this photo to facebook last week, with the caption, “I’m not sure I want my salad greens to have sass.”

I just thought it was a funny/stupid thing to put on a box of spinach leaves. But a friend commented on the photo with “Why do green leaves need a rating scale for texture and taste? Pick the bloody thing up and eat it, America…” And, well, he has a point.

It is so hard to just buy food over here. Which I realise sounds slightly ridiculous, but I mean it in the Michael Pollan sense: stuff that my great-great-grandmother would recognise as food. Supermarket aisles are jam-packed with “meal helpers” and “flavour enhancers” and many many other unidentifiable food-esque products. But not food.

As a prime example, this morning I went to my local supermarket to buy cous cous. Now it’s unlikely that any of my great-great-grandmothers ever ate cous cous, but other people’s great-great-grandmothers did, and that’s what counts. These were my only four options (click on the photo for a larger version):

It’s flavoured cous cous, or nothing. I don’t know much about Morocco in the nineteenth century, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that “mango salsa cous cous” was not a hot new fad in Marrakesh. In fact I’m fairly certain that this “ethnic food,” to use the manufacturer’s description, is not actually eaten by any ethnic group anywhere in the world.

I’m also intrigued by the fact that the roasted chicken and vegetables variety is both “all natural” AND “artificially flavored.” Curious.

Have another example. I wanted crushed peanuts to put on stir-fries. Simple enough, I thought. Not so much. There were crushed walnuts and slivered almonds in the baking section, but no peanuts. Hey, fair enough, it could just be a regional thing; people don’t cook with peanuts that often over here. I did eventually find some shelled but whole ones in the snack aisle, although I had to carefully read the labels to get them unsalted. I also found these:

I’m not sure anything could more beautifully encapsulate what’s wrong with the American diet than NUT-rition bone health mix. JUST EAT NUTS, YOU CRAZY PEOPLE.

A final example, on a slightly different track.

Hamburger Helper is a quintessentially American supermarket product: take one pound of beef, and one box of hamburger helper seasoning, a few minutes later serve your family a “home cooked meal.” It’s like magic! Only not. I haven’t spent a lot of time in Ulaanbaatar recently (one day…), and my knowledge of Mongolian cuisine and history is sketchy at best, but I’m going to go out on another limb and say that your average cook on the steppes doesn’t need any stupid helper.

And I know that these meal helpers are available in other countries. Hey – here’s some Asian “recipe bases” from Maggi Australia. But it’s the sheer number of them over here that is mind-boggling. Coupled with the fact that it’s sometimes impossible to buy the component base ingredients required to make the dish yourself from scratch, and I frequently come home frustrated and item-less from the supermarket.

Now, people in glasses houses, and all that. The food tag on this very blog demonstrates, in a devastatingly clear fashion, why my diet is never going to win any awards. But since moving here I promise I have become a lot more conscious of what I eat, mostly because over here you really, really have to. When even a “bone health nut mix” has corn syrup in it, you’ve got to be alert.

There’s so much more I could write on this, and probably will (I now have a “strange supermarket foods” folder of photos on my computer), but for now I’ll just say this: adding water to a box of “hamburger helper” and heating it up is not cooking (nor is it Mongolian), you cannot eat mango salsa cous cous and say you’ve experimented with “ethnic food,” and if you buy a tin of nuts in the hope it will make your bones strong, well… best of luck. You’ll need it when you fall over and break a hip at the age of 45.

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2 Responses to “When food isn’t food”

  1. 1 The Fat Housemate

    Okay, so you see how often we cook at home, right? And how convenience-food-dependent we are?

    We cook about ten times more frequently than our peers.

    You can carry on being frightened now!

    • 2 justsomethings

      My very very belated reply (apologies!): so I don’t think I was all that clear in my original post – probably shouldn’t write long screeds when I’m tired and frustrated. My intention wasn’t to take aim at what people cook, or how, or whatever. Do what you need to do! Eat what you want to eat! Please don’t judge me for how often I eat pasta with sauce out of a jar! 🙂

      My focus was more on the fact that if you want to cook with whole ingredients then it can be a real challenge (unless you go and blow lots of money at Whole Foods). A lot of it is a culture shock-related thing: I’d never heard the term “food desert” until I came over here, for example. We’re so lucky in Australia (in the cities, anyway) with our access to fresh food, which can make food shopping over here a bit frustrating!


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