Dr. John Cranfield is in the Globe and Mail, "Broke? Get cookin"

May 04, 2009

Broke? Get cooking

It's hard to love a recession, John Allemang writes, but bad times can be good for your diet, your health and your pocketbook

"There's nothing more exciting and empowering for kids," Mr. Jess says, "than seeing milk become cheese in just a few days."

His program is graduating 150 students this year, and the enrolment for next year has more than doubled. In a troubled financial climate, some of that eagerness to learn dairy chemistry or master knife techniques may be vocational, the realization that superior kitchen skills are prized in the marketplace. And some of it is as basic as survival.

"A number of my senior students live on their own and have the kind of problems that go with that," Mr. Jess says. "What I can offer them with this curriculum is independence, self-confidence and the ability to sustain their own needs. That's not about fine dining, that's about making tortillas and salsa from scratch."

But there's another lesson here, one that deserves to be heard whenever the pleasures of good food are being downgraded. Mr. Jess, as it happens, is the co-leader of Slow Food in Guelph, Ont., and he is determined to show cooking as a creative art that liberates us from the restraints of the economy's so-called reality.

"How can it be pretentious when it's what our grandmothers used to do?" he asks. "We're tapping into traditions that are rich and exciting. I've got 14-year-olds whose knife skills are so good, they're taking over their family kitchens, and their parents are floored because these children are so passionate about food."

Can you make the same claims for canned soup or packaged macaroni dinners? Even if cooking from scratch does cost more, it would still supply added value in hard times because of the joy and confidence it creates.

"One of the best things Slow Food can teach North Americans," says John Cranfield, a professor of agricultural economics at Guelph University, "is the social aspect of eating. When a family sits down to eat in a time of stress, there's a silver lining in the dark clouds."

But it's also worth remembering Slow Food is rooted in what Italians proudly call la cucina povera - poor person's food. Whatever the ticket cost for the gala dinners, or the sticker shock that can accompany the local, organic and fair-trade ingredients prized by the movement's adherents, there remains a model of gastronomic thrift that is perfectly suited to these times - if only we're receptive to it.

"Someone who's economically challenged has as much right to pleasure as the well-off," says Mara Jernigan, a Slow Food proponent and chef based at Fairburn Farm in the Cowichan Valley of Vancouver Island. "And pleasure is part of our ammunition: It's one of the tools we can use to entice people into rediscovering good local food."

Scorning the elitist tag, Ms. Jernigan talks about walking out her back door, gathering some stinging nettles, making a rough pasta out of flour and water and producing "an incredible meal which only costs pennies." But, of course, it's not just the cost that is at issue among people who question which foods best suit a time of cutbacks and downsizing - it's the very idea that poorer people would choose to eat stinging nettles, would have access to them, would know what to do with them if they found them and would be able to supply the splash of rustic Sicilian olive oil that elevates la cucina povera into the food of the gods.

These are the kind of cultural and economic conundrums that can sideline any conversation about the relationship between poverty and pleasure. But while the critics of Slow Food, founded in 1986 by Italian journalist Carlo Petrini, and similar food-liberation movements belabour the point, the truly altruistic and empathetic eaters have long since moved on. For cookbook author Anita Stewart, straitened times can be advantageous in the local food world.

"Farmers markets are thriving, and we're in the wonderful situation where we don't have enough farmers for our markets. Now, we can finally tell people who want to farm: 'Go back to the land and you can make money.' "

Gabriel Riel-Salvatore of Slow-Food Montreal talks excitedly about the growth of the movement in rural Quebec - a Salon du Goût, or food festival, held in Marieville, in the apple-rich Montérégie region east of the city, "has become a tool to help the economy and helped people start to discover our local goods."

"Food is at the heart of the creative economy," says Harriet Friedmann, a sociologist at the Munk Centre for International Studies and co-chair of the Toronto Food Policy Council. "It offers huge possibilities for economic revitalization, and could be the same motor for growth that the car industry was 30 or 40 years ago."

That kind of long-term thinking doesn't put good food on the impoverished table tonight, of course, and it does involve some inbuilt contra- dictions - what Prof. Friedmann, who is conducting a public conversation with Mr. Petrini in Toronto tonight, calls "a privilege-led supply chain" that fosters the rise of a more vigorous and inventive local-food economy.

She agrees there is a growing problem of culinary elitism that foodistas are sometimes reluctant to face. "We've moved to a two-tier system where it's Kraft Dinner for the poor while the rich talk about terroir and drink fine wines. That's not what we want. We have to make it possible for everybody to have good food."

That's one of the principal aims of The Stop, a Toronto institution that started out as a food bank in a previous economic crisis and now calls itself a place that "works to increase people's access to healthy food in a manner that maintains dignity, builds community and challenges inequality." This may not be the most hedonistic way of describing the centre's goals, but the pleasure of growing, cooking and eating food manages to work its way in all the same.

"We have a society-wide problem of poor eating habits and a loss of kitchen skills," program director Kathryn Scharf says. "I hesitate to describe it as a low-income problem." True enough, but the mealtime solutions available to people who have seen their income drop often appear more limited and less healthy. For them, The Stop offers a vast range of life-enhancing possibilities including canning workshops, trips to pick-your-own strawberry farms (hence the canning workshops), gardening classes, the offer of free seedlings from The Stop's greenhouse for use in urban community gardens, outreach programs to low-income housing complexes (where herbs may be planted on a balcony or squash on an adjacent patch of vacant ground), a Cooking 101 class where people learn to make a week's supply of dinners from local ingredients, and a year-long after-school cooking program for 10- and 11-year-olds that, Ms. Scharf says, "lays the basis for skills that will stay with them through the troubling French-fry years." The students also get to tend their own compost-creating worm bins, which has got to make the easy enticements of the fast-food universe seem dull and dreary by comparison.


The Stop exists for low-income people, but now finds itself thronged by food-loving members of the middle class desperate to learn the basic skills the centre has to offer. If a loss of income becomes a motivation for learning how to grow heirloom tomatoes, economic necessity may not be so bad, at least when it can be made into the mother of culinary invention. Why accept the repetitive inevitability of canned soup or instant mac and cheese when, notes Jennifer McLagan, author of the inventive back-to-basics cookbooks Bones and Fat, when you can cook lamb neck in red wine and anchovies. "It's so delicious and cheap," she says with the gusto of a woman proud to describe herself as parsimonious.

In Ms. McLagan's joyously frugal world, dandelion leaves are plucked from her tiny downtown Toronto garden and dressed with pancetta and vinegar, cheaper windfall apples are converted into pies, (good) bread and (good) cheese are a meal in themselves, stock is always on the boil, beef heart and deep-fried lamb tongue take the place of high-priced beef tenderloin, and leftovers are never thrown out.

In a world where many people don't know how to roast a chicken, being creatively parsimonious may be seen as an insuperable challenge, whatever the economic pressures. "But it's not so hard to cook cheaply," Ms. McLagan says reassuringly. "All it requires is an investment of time."

And time, that former luxury, is the one thing we now have more of.