It seems that wherever you read about good food, you'll find articles about peasant cooking: most of our favorite restaurants showcase examples of humble cuisine. Recently, however, I found peasant food described with foodie buzzwords like "fresh," "best," or "imported." To me, these words seem out of place - more appropriate for gluttons like Edward VII, who, after succumbing to gout, promised his doctor to limit himself to two cigars before breakfast.
Peasants are, by definition, people of humble means. A few years ago, I became concerned about the food desert in Chicago. Mari Gallagher, a researcher on food, poverty, and health issues, defines food deserts as "large and isolated geographic areas where mainstream grocery stores are absent or distant." She has linked the food desert with dangerous diet-related health outcomes - and it's no wonder why. In a food desert, fresh vegetables are hard to come by, salty canned foods are staples. Heavily-processed meats and cheeses may be your only options for protein. Even within this paradigm, choices are extremely limited; the excess of brands in grocery stores don't exist at the 7-Eleven. It is no wonder that food desert dwellers prefer to eat at fast-food restaurants, despite the consequences to their well-being.
But, after all, isn't facing and overcoming adversity the defining quality of a human being? It is in this kind of extremely restrictive environment that peasant cooking thrives: take away all the meat and leave the bones? Mulligatawny and consomme appear in the peasant kitchen. Short growing season? Peasants preserve cabbage as sauerkraut, kimchi, or tung tsai. Fishing season short? Peasant ingenuity produces delicacies like baccalao, smoked kippers, canned sardines or lox. When we look within our own kitchens, even with the constraints of the food desert, we do much better at taking care of ourselves.
So, what happens if we take away "fresh," "best," and "imported?" In this project, I challenged myself to scour local dollar stores and drugstores and find a better, tastier and healthier diet. I also explore various political endeavors to address issues like the food desert, diet-related disease, and their successes and failures.
I originally began this project on LTHForum.com, where it is documented, and would like to thank the posters and moderators there for all their support.
Recipe Index for the Food Desert Project