On The Myth of Equating Poor Eating Habits with Economic Class or Spending Power

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Our grandparents in Southern Italy eat and live well, yet their relative spending power isn't driving their behavior.

The Tradition You Come From Matters

One of the critical life lessons I learned from my Italian family is how to value food and dispel the myth of equating poor eating habits with economic class or spending power.  Specifically, I was taught:

  1. How to cook and the closely associated idea of,
  2. Why food is important and should be taken seriously.

My mother taught me the mechanics of making all sorts of foods from scratch, ranging from pasta to risotto and roasted baby goat to pan seared swordfish.  And at the same time, I learned how important it was to make time for preparing food and, thereafter, share it at a communal table with family and friends (and to repeat the process as much as possible).  I equate the latter lesson I was taught to the importance of reading and scholarly endeavors in the Jewish tradition, for example.  The idea of food being important and necessary for a good quality life is in my Italian blood and I can’t imagine living any other way (I know folks who place incredible value on Yankee baseball or a shiny new car every three years; are these misguided values?).
Why Don’t Americans Make Food at Home?

In turn, it comes as a great shock and disappointment when one looks around (in the United States) and sees a culture of fast food, obesity, and the general lack of importance in relation to consuming homemade food.  Specifically, we hear many reasons from the so-called “food experts”, including the notion that buying quality ingredients to produce fresh and homemade food is an expensive endeavor in the United States (ask a European how expensive food is).  And, moreover, that it’s more economical for a family of four to purchase dinner and lunch from McDonald’s, for example, then to go out and buy fresh food (this isn’t the view of the food expert, but rather American society as a whole).  The implication is that the poor choose fast food and other high calorie meals because they have no choice and are priced out from shopping for fruits, vegetables, fish, meats, grains, etc.

To the latter assertion I say, “nonsense!”  And, yes, I’m going to turn to the recent immigrant storybook to illustrate that one doesn’t need to spend a fortune to eat well and, moreover, that a family of four can take his or her fast food budget and prepare “from scratch” meals that are quick, cheap, healthy, and taste good (eating well doesn’t equate to great spending power, as the folks at SeriousEats.com seem to suggest when responding to one of Michael Pollan’s eating tips).

One pound of Wild Flounder made with breadcrumbs, olive oil, and lemon zest. The fish easily fed four people: $9.99 per pound or $10.00 for serving of four)

It’s Cheaper to Buy Good Food Versus Fast Food

Let’s take the price of an average meal at McDonalds for four and say that the Smith family will consume four medium size French fries, three cheeseburgers, one six piece chicken McNugget, and four medium sizes Cokes (let’s assume dinner will cost about $20; I don’t have access to a menu with prices so I just estimated).  With that same $20 I can head to my local independent market (some would call it a gourmet market) and purchase the following items for dinner (I actually bought these items for dinner two days ago):

- 1 pounds of wild flounder fillet for $9.99 per pound or $10.00

- 1 box of artisan ravioli from Vitamia in Lodi, NJ (16 total ravioli) for  $4.50

- 2 medium sized Bok Choy heads (about 2lbs for 99 cents a poud) for $2.00

- 1 loaf of Sullivan Street bread (this is a large bread which will last a few days) for $3.50

Total: $20.00

Note: I live in a region of the US where the cost of living is high.  

With the above ingredients I made baked flounder with breadcrumbs, lemon zest, and olive oil, ravioli with already prepared homemade tomato sauce, and sautéed bok choy with garlic and olive oil.  We consumed the bread with our fish and vegetable.  We did finish up our meal with two fresh pears and two oranges that were purchased during a different trip to the market.  The meal fed 4 adults (with an appropriate sized portion of fish, vegetable, and bread per person and we started the meal with 4 ravioli per serving).

Our meal was tasty, satisfying, made with fresh ingredients, and for the exception of the ravioli and bread, prepared at home.  You could certainly make your own bread and pasta at home, and keep price down, but for a Mon-Fri type of meal this is the sort of “pre packaged” items that are ok to buy, in my view.

(photo: Artisan ravioli made by Vitamia in Lodi, NJ with homemade tomato sauce with mushrooms, made a few nights earlier: 1 pound for $4.50


An Explanation

So, why is it that many poor to middle income families choose the fast food route when it comes to meal choice?  Could the families who choose prepared food not be ingrained with the idea that consuming quality food is important?  If not for my specific culture and upbringing, for example, I certainly would not consider food an important part of living in the US because it’s not taught at school or praised in the media.  Therefore, a probable explanation for eating habits in the US may be cultural norms rather than income or access to fresh ingredients.  In sum, I choose to spend my twenty dollars for wild/fresh fish, greens, artisan bread, and handmade ravioli, as opposed to prepared French fries, cheeseburgers, Coke, and deep fried chicken nuggets, because I was taught from an early age to value food and make it at home.  Eating well isn’t a by-product of socio-economic factors (don’t listen to the food experts), but rather how one is raised and, in turn,  views the preparation and consumption of food.  Being poor doesn’t force you to eat at McDonald’s, rather being taught that consuming pre-made food is acceptable (from an early age) and part of how one lives is the culprit.

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  • http://www.cesidebtsolutions.org Lillie

    I like the comparison with McDonald’s and preparing your own food. The best part, and probably the one that most people don’t get, is that if you cook the meal yourself, more than likely there will be leftovers and something for the next day or the following day in addition to the added value of having quality food. Getting back to the basics and teaching this concept is a must.

  • http://www.scordo.com Scordo

    Yes, leftovers are an important part of eating at home.
    Thanks, Lillie.
    Vince

  • Kell

    I’m going to respectfully disagree with part of your assertion and these are my reasons why.
    1) If you live in Lodi, NJ take a trip into the Bronx or one of the poorer sections of Queens. Find a supermarket. Note how little of the market is devoted to fresh produce. Most inner city supermarkets don’t have bok choy, Sullivan Street bread, or artisan ravioli. (though they will probably have frozen ravioli)
    2) I’m curious how a single mother, working two jobs, trying to raise 4 kids is supposed to have the time to make your delicious feast between job one and job two? She needs to feed the kids and maybe spend some time with them, so yes, fast food is a very attractive option.
    3) A lot of upscale food markets don’t take foodstamps. So shopping at whole food isn’t an option.
    I see your point, but you do live in a place where the cost of living is high. Imagine if you weren’t able to afford what you were able to afford.

  • Rachel

    I’ve heard many people say that they don’t know how to cook. If a person isn’t raised on homecooked meals and taught the value of eating together, cooking really seems like a obstacle rather than a joy or an art. Home cooking really is a skill, it takes some time and planning to make good meals day after day. It’s kind of like gardening, when you get down to the basics, it’s really not rocket science. But if you’re not taught it, and have no natural affinity for it, then it’s much more intimidating.

  • http://http:www.scordo.com Vince Scodo

    Hi Kell,
    Thanks for the thoughtful reply. Here’s a quick response by point:
    1. I don’t live in Lodi, NJ, but relatively close in the northern NJ area. When my parents immigrated to the Stats in early 1970′s they couldn’t find the foods they were used to and moreover, from my mom’s perspective, had poor choice at local markets in terms of greens, fruits, and meats. My parent’s income was limited, but my mom took a bus to search out good food ingredients. Finding good food was a priority for her and her family.
    I mentioned the Sullivan St., Bok Choy, and Vitamia ravioli specifically because the price points of these items is on par with McDonald’s pricing (for a full meal). It’s not about the specific bread, pasta, or green but rather that some version of the aforementioned ingredients are available. In your example, the family living in the Bronx can take the bus to Fordham section and find all of the items above on Aurthur Ave. Again, it’s a matter of priority and desire to eat well.
    2. Finding time to eat well requires work, no question about it. From personal experience, again, plenty of family members who came over during the second great wave of Italian immigrants in the early seventies worked two jobs, had multiple kids, etc. and still found time to eat well and not eat fast food.
    3. Sure on this point and food stamps (this is a problem and all shops should take food stamps). By the way, you don’t need to shop at gourmet shops to eat well (I’m certainly not trying to imply this…).
    “I see your point, but you do live in a place where the cost of living is high. Imagine if you weren’t able to afford what you were able to afford.”
    Exactly my point, I live in a metro area where cost of living is high and the aforementioned items are still accessible for a similarly priced McDonald’s meal.
    My two cents..
    Best,
    Vince from Scordo.com

  • http://www.scordo.com Vince Scordo

    Hi Rachel,
    You are right, it does take a bit of thought and some training to cook at home. I think most folks can learn to make good food at home, but it certainly requires a commitment.
    It’s especially hard in the US to cook at home because it’s just not in our culture to take food as seriously as they do, for example, in Italy, Spain, France, and even Germany. Things are changing in the US and I think the whole “local food” movement is positive.
    I think it takes a few generations for a given family to pass on the importance of eating at home and making your own food; it’s very hard to go from a first generation non cook to someone who makes food from scratch and rarely eats out.
    My general point is that the food problem in the US is cultural and not a result of lack of money.
    Best,
    Vince

  • http://joedegiorgio.wordpress.com/ Joe DeGiorgio

    Vince, you could probably guess my take on this one. Even when my grandparents were poor (they weren’t for long), the food was always carefully prepared, of the highest quality, and the centerpiece of an otherwise ordinary day.
    I’m still kind of baffled by the prevalence of fast food in our society, now that everyone probably knows the side effects!
    I had a recent blog post (where I referenced a cool site named Scordo.com) where I touched on this subject. Part of it read:
    “At the other end of the spectrum, I know people outside of my family circle that own big houses, multiple vehicles, have ample sums of money, and they eat fast food because of the illusion that it’s quick and cheap. That’s where they prefer to save their money. On the food they put into their bodies.
    Can that possibly be the new definition of insanity?”
    Yours is an excellent post on a subject that is important to the health and well being of the citizens of this country that needs to be expanded upon.
    Nice pic of the ravioli, by the way. I’m drooling.

  • http://www.simplyforties.com SimplyForties

    Excellent article. This view that only the well off can eat well is a big peeve of mine. It definitely takes planning but it can certainly be done. Cooking in bulk on your day off is a good way around the working all the time blues. Those fast calories aren’t nearly as filling as the home-cooked alternatives and are a real threat to your children’s future health. I have heard that markets in poorer areas don’t stock as many fresh fruits and vegetables. Markets stock what people buy. Fresh produce is a real loser when people don’t buy it and it spoils on the shelf. It’s up to the consumers to convince their markets to carry what they want to see. If you buy it, they will carry it.
    If you’re taking the bus somewhere else to buy what you can’t find locally, make sure your local store knows it!

  • http://www.scordo.com Vince Scordo

    Joe, One of my gripes with *some* personal finance bloggers is that there seems to be a big emphasis on saving money on food. And while the premise is a good one, I see food is a quality of life variable and in turn spend more on food than most frugal individuals. I value good food and like most of my family members and transplanted Europeans here in the US I buy the best quality food I can afford.
    SimplyForties, good point on stores stocking what is demand. One example I would offer is that I’ve walked through some pretty tough neighborhoods in Paterson and Newark, NJ and also some not so nice sections of the Bronx and in all three areas there were small mom and pop shops (basically delis) carrying fruits and vegetables. Just a small example…

  • http://funny-about-money.com Funny about Money

    Kell has got something when she asks “how a single mother, working two jobs, trying to raise 4 kids is supposed to have the time to make your delicious feast between job one and job two?”
    My first response to your (delicious!!) post was to think that the working poor tend to be undereducated and simply don’t know that fast food and processed junk are unhealthy, nor do they know what the alternatives are.
    On reflection, though, my parents were undereducated, too–my father never graduated from high school, and my mother couldn’t even dream of going to college. But almost all our food was home-cooked. It was simple but nutritious and well balanced. BUT…here’s the clinker: my mother didn’t work outside the home!
    In those days, most women didn’t. Back in the dark ages, a blue-collar job earned enough to support a family in reasonably middle-class comfort. Today, even if you’re not a single mother, you still have to go to work to help your husband keep a roof over your kids’ heads. The cost of living–especially the cost of housing and transportation–is so exorbitant that it takes two salaries to keep a family afloat.
    The typical meal my mother would fix, which usually consisted of a piece of meat, a serving of vegetables, a serving of starch, and a salad, takes about an hour to prepare. Buying a week’s worth of groceries to prepare in the kitchen also consumes a significant chunk of time.
    Today, especially among the working classes, neither parent in a household has enough hours in the day to go to work, chase kids, and buy and prepare home-cooked food. That no doubt explains much of the nation’s poor eating habits.

  • Vincent

    Hi Funny About Money,
    I tried to respond to Kell’s comments above and he does make some good points.
    Time is an issue, but like any task in like it’s about “making the time” to do something. More specifically, if one wants to eat well then they need to somehow fit cooking and food shopping into their daily routine. I often feel very tired after a long day, but I’ll venture to the market on the way home to buy some fish and fresh vegetables and then spend another 30-45 minutes to prepare a meal. Would I rather have the meal sent to me in the form of a pizza or some burgers so I’d have that extra 1.5 hours to myself (between buying and cooking the food)? Absolutely, but food is important to me and my family so we make room for it…
    Vince

  • Jenna

    “I’m curious how a single mother, working two jobs, trying to raise 4 kids is supposed to have the time to make your delicious feast between job one and job two? She needs to feed the kids and maybe spend some time with them, so yes, fast food is a very attractive option.”
    At the risk of sounding abrupt… the same way my grandmother did after her divorce and having to raise 4 kids alone and on food stamps as she struggled with cancer – by breathing deep… and knowing its important. Spend time with the kids IN the kitchen – make it the heart of the home again. I don’t know about other kids, but my brother and I were put to work on the family meals by the time we could stand without toppling into the sink. It might not always have been pretty (or in honesty, perfectly tasty… but I only made the sugar/salt mistake once!) but we learned a lot with our parents in the time we spent with them making dinner. By the same token, my brother and I also got pretty good at MAKING dinner ourselves, or at least getting the bulk of it started on the nights my mom and dad had to work late. The same kid who can figure out how to reprogram their parents computer or bike on their own can put water on to boil for pasta and toss a salad.
    It won’t be easy – I think what Scordo says in the main is the truth, its what we have been taught to accept that is the issue. We have to reassess and MAKE food important again. For a long time folks have chanted “Eat to live, don’t live to eat” – but why? Rather than go to the movies – take the kids to the farmer’s market. Spend the arcade quarters on a few plants to tend together on the fire escape.
    It isn’t just possible – it HAS to happen, or this boat is gonna sink.

  • Deb

    Hiya–
    Nice article and I agree with much of it. My parents were immigrants, too, and we rarely ate out. My mom cooked every night and nothing came from a can. However, she was a stay-at-home mom ’til I was 12.
    I have to partially side with Kell, though. I recently moved into the ghetto to save money : ) I am seriously bummed out by the supermarket situation. The one market that borders the nicer part of town does carry more produce, but it’s very overpriced. The one wholesale-type produce market is very inexpensive, but the quality of produce is subpar. Some stuff is good, but a lot of it is starting to turn.
    I remember watching an elderly woman cry when, I think it was Fairway, came to Harlem. She was overwhelmed because she couldn’t believe she’d finally have access to fresh produce. At that point, there were something like 10 McDonald’s for every 1 bodega. And bodegas aren’t exactly top flight when it comes to stocking good food.
    I agree that there’s a cultural disconnect that occurs from generations of immigrant families. And it’s not like there’s a shortage of television education about how to cook great food these days. Some ghetto families are cavalier about food prep; others still cook old-school style. But all do have problems with respect to accessing healthy food. Food prices have skyrocketed over the last 10 years. Produce is through the roof [don't get me going on this...I still don't know why we import 70% of our produce]. So it is challenging for lower-income families to put good food on the table. It’s definitely changing, but it’s challenging.
    The thing that blows my mind is the number of wealthy families who don’t know how to cook and are obese. It seems this problem of convenience-at-any-price is taking over America, period–rich and poor alike. Very sad indeed.

  • http://www.scordo.com Vincent Scordo

    Hi Deb,
    Thanks for the comment and the time to write such a thoughtful reply. I agree with you that there are areas that have a large proportion of fast food restaurants in relation to shops that carry fresh produce, fish, and meat.
    However, one of the key points that I aimed to get across is that food is not about convenience. And even middle income areas in the US have a poor selection of high quality food products (it’s getting better but national fast food chains still outnumber high quality shops that offer local produce, fresh fish, good meats, etc.).
    I’ll give you an example, with the second great wave of Italian immigration in the US( say, from 1960-1975) many native Italians couldn’t find access to ingredients to make basic, healthy, meals in the US. My parents came to the US in mid 1970′s and relocated to a small, blue collar town, just a few minutes outside of NYC and my mother had a difficult time finding good quality food. However, she often took the bus to markets, planned well, and devoted a large percentage of the family budget to purchasing good foods (did you know that food wasn’t always cheep in the US, there was a time when most family spent about 70 percent of their budget on food and clothes; see the documentary Food, Inc.).
    I suppose what I’m saying is that it takes hard work to eat well and avoid McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, Taco Bell and the rest of the national brands that pretend to be serving food. It also takes a big mental leap to value food as an important element in one’s life; in the US we put material success, cars, large homes, etc. ahead of eating well. Just think of countries like Italy, France, Spain, etc. where quality of life is measured in relation to how one eats every day. Until the average American gets excited about eating fresh Aspargus in the Spring, or eating a perfectly ripe local pear after dinner as dessert, or roasting a whole wild red snapper for dinner, we will have issues with food. We really do need a food revolution in the US (it’s happening slowly, but we’re not there yet).
    Vince

  • Deb

    nice, points–and very interesting factoid about households spending 70% on food. wow!
    i wish i had more time to cook–i love it. it’s therapeutic, saves you money, and is much more rewarding to eat than some half-prepared meal from a store.
    your recipe blogs make me drool…love the photos. gonna go for the arancini!

  • http://www.sistergirltales.blogspot.com nyc/caribbean ragazza

    I agree this is a cultural issue.
    My parents are from the Caribbean. First we lived in the City then moved to a wealthy suburb in Jersey.
    I know not every neighborhood has a Kings Supermarket and I agree that quality of food offered in poor areas is an outrage.
    My mom worked full time, commuting into the City, had three kids and still we had home cooked meals. I didn’t even know what Kraft Mac and Cheese was until I went to college.
    Where my parents are from (St. Martin) food is important. On the Dutch side of the island there are a bunch of American fast food places. Many people from my parents generation are not happy about it.
    Now I live in Italy and my grocery bill is much cheaper and I eat a lot better. This idea that to eat well one must be rich is ridiculous. It’s not elitist to care about what and how we eat.
    Americans spend more time in front of the TV than any other Western country. Don’t tell me nobody has time to cook. It’s just not a priority for a lot of people which is why fast food is so popular.

  • http://bleedingespresso.com Michelle | Bleeding Espresso

    I work full-time and also (along with my husband) take care of dogs, goats, chickens, ducks, rabbits, and a garden that produces a lot of our food. I cook *twice* a day more often than not, often putting things like blanched veggies and beans in the freezer for days when I need a “quick” meal. I’m lucky in that I work at home, but when I didn’t, I just had more things in the freezer (prepared by me) ready to go.
    It may not be “easy” to find time to prepare meals for your family, but it simply *has* to be a priority. I don’t see anything wrong with an occasional stop at McDonald’s or whatever your poison is, but when it’s every night of the week, especially if you have children, that’s not good for anyone’s health — or, as you point out, Vince, their wallets.
    Nice post :)

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  • Ellie Burn

    I agree with you on the lack of fresh produce, not only in NJ but all over! Sustaining a family with healthy food definately takes a lot more effort than it used to. I say we stick with the basics, get back to growing our produce so that not only do we know where it comes from but we also have it easily accessible. Have you heard of Ted Hallett, The Garden Master? He has got some pretty amazing knowledge and experience with gardening. He is known worldwide, google him!

  • Sally

    Vince, I love your site! I don’t have a drop of Italian blood, have never been (and will probably never get) to Italy, but I love all things Italian, especially the food of Southern Italy.
    I grew up during the 1950s and 60s. As far back as I can remember, my mom, my aunt, and nearly all of my friend’s mothers worked. With the exception of my mom, all of them cooked dinner every night. There weren’t many other options. What they didn’t do was take kids to numerous lessons, practices, games, and so on. They also generally didn’t have long commutes to and from work, go to gyms, book clubs or shopping on weeknights (nothing was open). There are many things that gobble up our time now that didn’t exist then. All of those things take away from time spent in the kitchen preparing a meal. After work, nearly everything was focused on the home and family.
    Why didn’t my mom cook? My parents were self-employed and usually worked 14-16 hours daily six days a week and often the seventh, too. I was always with them and never went home after school, I went to the store. There were several small mom-and-pop type restaurants in our town and we usually ate at one of them.

  • http://www.scordo.com Vincent Scordo

    Thanks, Sally! 14-16 hour days are very long; I think eating and then getting to sleep as quickly as possible are the only two things your parents wanted to do after getting home.
    I’m glad you like Scordo.com ! Thanks for reading and spreading the word!
    Vince

  • http://www.scordo.com Vincent Scordo

    Ellie, will do, thanks for the info on Red Hallett!
    Best,
    Vince

  • grammy

    Hi,
    I like your website very much and think you have lots of good ideas and yummy looking recipes.
    On this issue though,I think you are missing the mark a bit. People who don’t have lots of money to spend on food aren’t going to be spending $20+ on fast food or wild flounder and artisan ravioli for one meal.
    Your meal actually cost more than $20 because you topped it off with some previously purchased fruit. Do you realize that one meal a day at $20+ would be over $140 a week for just ONE meal a day? Way,way,way too high a price.
    Sorry,but it’s very unrealistic to think that people on tight budgets generally eat poorly because they don’t purchase high priced items,or organic foods or free range chickens or whatever. Or because they habitually eat out at fast food places. People can and do eat healthy,nutritious,home cooked meals on much less than you suggest. I know it’s true because my husband and I do it all the time and so do most everyone we know.

    • http://www.scordo.com/ Scordo.com

      Hi Grammy

      Yes, we realize that $20 would cover only one meal, but wouldn’t folks need to spend the same amount, per meal, at McDonald’s, for example? Our point is that you can make a meal at home for roughly the same amount of money you would spend for a family of four at a fast food joint.

      Of course, one can cook good meals on less than $20 (no need to buy organic or “gourmet” food) but the trick to cooking at home consistently and economically (and being satisfied) is to eat well. You can make a pound of pasta every night for $1.20 and simply mix it with corn oil and then bake a piece of Talapia with the same oil and salt/pepper for about $4 (add a bowl of iceburg lettuce for another $2-$3 including oil/vinegar dressing), but no one will want to eat at home given the menu.

      Eating well at home is a choice and requires work (this is a fact). Navigating a tight budget is all about choices and eating well on a budget is no exception. Many of my relatives go without standard items in order to eat well at home (with no cell phone, cable, multiple cars, vacations, etc.) and I’m afraid this view is still considered strange in the US (where most families put their cell phone or cable plan ahead of eating well at home).

      Thanks for your comment.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=620400000 Hayley Skladanek

    Wonderful!! I agree whole-heartedly!! I grow my own tomatoes, basil, eggplant, zucchini, peppers, etc, etc, and can my own tomato & pesto sauce, hot peppers, eggplants, etc. My family and I always discuss how satisfied we feel when we eat homemade food (for almost $0.00) vs. eating either fast food, or even a healthy choice at a restaurant. The Love that goes into a meal nourishes a family like nothing else! I Just discovered your blog, and I LOVE IT! Grazie Mille!!

    • http://www.scordo.com/ Scordo.com

      Thanks, Hayley. Appreciate the kind (and wise) words!

  • Athena

    I agree with the person who said that your food cost estimates are way off. You need to factor in the cost of spices, the sauce, the fruit, etc. The sauce would probably be another $5 or so, considering those appear to be high quality mushrooms in there, and the fruit another $2 or so. I’d factor in another dollar for the lemon zest, garlic and olive oil, which comes out to 28 dollars or $7/per person. This really, really isn’t feasible for most people and is more expensive than some fast food. Whereas most ‘poor’ people eating at MacDonalds would be going for dollar menu items or getting kids meals for their kids.

    Plus you’re not factoring in the time and energy it takes to cook. If you’ve just spent 10 hours on your feet doing a retail shift (or, gods forbid, a split shift if you’re waitstaff), you’re not really going to want to cook a fancy dinner. This is the real reason why fast food and processed food are popular-you don’t have to spend a whole lot of time preparing it. Basically, you’re hitting the wrong notes with your assumptions. It’s one of the reasons so many of my colleagues have poor diets-spend 10 hours in the lab doing research and you’re just to tired and famished to take another hour or two to cook dinner, so in goes a ramen packet/frozen meal.

    • http://www.scordo.com/ Scordo.com

      Hi Athena,

      Thanks for the comment.

      We’re assuming folks have some cooking oil, garlic, and a few standard vegetables and fruits in their home. Just like you can’t run a car without gas, you’re not going to be able to cook at home without some basics (regardless of income). You can make tomato sauce out of 4-5 plum tomatoes which will cost you about 99 cents a pound in most supermarkets (figure a dollar for a few cups of sauce). The mushrooms we purchased came from Trader Joe’s (one dollar).
      Making food at home is a choice even if Mom and Dad are tired from a long day at work. I’ll try to spare you from all the “immigrant stories” I’ve been told by way of my grandparents (both my grandmothers and grandfathers) but the one story goes something like this: wake up at 5AM to feed the animals (located about 2 km from the village so a nice brisk walk was necessary), then walk back to the village to feed the children, then a walk back to the farm for a 8-9 work day spent tilling soil with oxen, planting crops, feeding animals, canning vegetables for sale, making olive oil for sale, etc.
      Making decent food for your family is going to take work (I don’t think it take 1-2 hours as you suggest, it usually takes me about 30-40 minutes to make our dinners for example) and if you choose to eat (or feed your family) ramen packet / frozen meals, then I really don’t have advice for you.

      • Athena

        I don’t think 4-5 tomatoes will give you much more than a cup of finished sauce. And while, yes, I realize a kitchen needs be stocked with basics, they are not free. They still cost money. For someone who is just beginning, the cost for a good spice cabinet, cooking oils, etc, can be a little overwhelming. Plus, as a NJ expatriot living in the South, I don’t think you realize how great our access to food and costs for fresh food is in the NY area. For example, where I live there are no Trader Joe’s, the nearest Whole Foods is over an hour away, eggplant is 2.99 for a small wimpy eggplant in most grocers, green bell peppers are $1 each compared to the 79c/lb I remember from back home. However, processed foods like hot pockets are way cheaper here. In fact I think the only fresh food that’s consistently cheaper is tropical fruit like avocados.

        I also think you’re sorely underestimating your cook times or leaving out prep times-a homemade sauce from scratch should be simmered for a good long time. A lentil soup usually goes on for an hour or so. If you’re looking to get busy people to cook, these are not the recipes to be posting. Of course not all recipes are like this, but a lot of foods are. In the past, this wasn’t really an issue due as women were expected to stay home and tend house, and people generally were married when they left their parents’ house.

        Anyway, my point wasn’t that one shouldn’t cook (in fact, it’s something I rather enjoy doing), or that it’s too much work all the time. My point was that there are a lot of perspectives you’re missing, and you’re not factoring them in, otherwise you’re totally missing your target audience here (unless your target audience is people who already cook all the time, in which case then you just have a bunch of people stroking each others’ egos and feeling superior.) If you want people who don’t cook to start cooking, you should be posting simple, quick and easy-to-prepare meals instead of expensive (fish!), complicated ones.

        • http://www.scordo.com/ Scordo.com

          I’ll try to address your individual points given that I think you’re missing the whole point of the “la cucina povera” or eating well at home.

          5 good size plum tomatoes will certainly give you a few cups of tomato sauce, especially if you make the sauce “loose” or in the style of marinara. Moreover, if dress your pasta in the Italian style you won’t need very much condiment or sauce and you’re sure to have left over tomato sauce. A “good sauce” as you say doesn’t need to simmer; a pan tomato sauce (unlike a ragu) can be cooked in as little as 10-15 minutes – there are long simmering tomato sauces and there are looser / marinara type tomato sauces (maybe try the latter for the weekdays). I’ve made lentil soup in as little as 40 minutes; if you invest in a second hand pressure cooker you can make it in 20 minutes. Overall, you’ll spend less time in the kitchen prepping and cooking as you become better at it; I almost never spend more than 60 minutes in the kitchen (M-F) prepping and cooking a meal consisting of a starter (soup or pasta); a protein, vegetable, and starch.

          Yes, you do need some basic staples to cook. Some sort of cooking oil, maybe a few spices (I don’t have much beyond peppers, Kosher salt, dried oregano, and red pepper flakes). As I said, you can skimp on fancy extra virgin olive oil and simply mix an average, small bottle, of olive oil with any vegetable oil (as my parents did when they first arrived in the States in the mid 1970′s).

          If eggplant and peppers are too expensive given your budget, then you can certainly find substitutes for the ingredients. I’m constantly looking to sub in items that I deem too expensive for my lifestyle.

          In terms of our target audience and food style, we advocate simple Italian cooking. This is the first comment we’ve heard or read that equated our dishes and recipes with complex assembly and preparation and, moreover, expensive ingredients! You should check out some of the French cooking blogs! Thanks, again, for your comments and perspective.

          Vince

  • Maria Fionda

    Vincent, I absolutely love this article and fully agree with you! I noticed this when I moved to the US eight years ago. Northcentral Florida can still be quite segregated and it saddened me to see that the fast food joints were constantly filled with people of low economic class. I kept thinking to myself: “I am on a graduate student salary, which I use to pay rent, utilities and fees to the university. I have opted to not own a car because I can certainly survive with the public transit system and a bicycle. And.. I eat lentils, chick peas, potatoes, onions, pasta and the occasional organic fruit (bananas, kiwis) and vegetable. It’s healthy and inexpensive.” Though the organic stuff is really not inexpensive but if managed properly, one can still include organic products in their diet, especially those whose non-organic counterparts are pretty much poison nowadays. Granted, I did not have a family to support, but the whole time I kept thinking that my parents DID support a family that way, and also included meat, fish and cheese in healthy proportions. Two beliefs came out of that first-year in the US experience: 1) I decided I will one day open my own health food store and make its organic products accessible to those of low economic status (including grad students!) for I think it’s sad that one cannot afford to eat organic food because it is too expensive. That’s how it was placed on Earth to begin with!; 2) Americans (and Canadians) need to be reeducated with regards to the role of food in their lives. I grew up in an Italian home in Montreal, in an Italian community. Most ethnic communities in Montreal cook their own food and grow it in their gardens in the summer. The same cannot be said of most other Canadians. I have never seen the obesity in Canada that I have seen in Florida and Mississippi but there is certainly no shortage of fast food joints and they always have a constant stream of customers. Perhaps a diet of lentils, chickpeas, potatoes, rice and reasonably-priced fruits and veggies may not appeal to some, but it is certainly inexpensive and still provides all necessary protein. It just takes planning and work to prepare it. It means giving food a priority in our lives. And why wouldn’t we? It’s what keeps us alive!