How much do Americans actually spend on food? (And how much should we?)

Last week I was trying to figure out what portion of their incomes Americans spend on food. (Why is a long story.) A lot of numbers are bandied about, but usually by people trying to make one political point or another, and it was more difficult than I expected to nail down anything reliable. But I managed to find out not only what people at various income levels do spend on food, but also what they’d have to spend in order to eat a healthy diet. The answers were, respectively, more than I thought… and considerably more than that.

The claim I most often read is that American food is ludicriously cheap. By historical and global standards, it is — but how cheap? The Gates Foundation reported last year that only 6 percent of Americans’ household expenditures went to food, compared with more than 10 percent in most of Europe and 35% in India. Their point is that the world’s poor spend a great deal more of their money on food than we do, which is true, and they intend to fund agricultural research so that the rest of the world can have cheap food like we do. Mother Jones republished the Gates Foundation’s bar chart to make a different point, that Americans spend very little — probably too little — of our incomes on food, and that this cheap food is possible only because we subsidize large-scale agriculture through taxes and externalize costs to the environment, to animal welfare, to workers, and to our health. (Since 1995 we’ve given $277 billion in subsidies to just 38 percent of U.S. farms, including more than $100 billion just to produce cheap corn and soy, most of which goes into various processed foods, most of which are far more caloric than nutritious and are by nearly every standard a major reason so many Americans are overweight.) This is, I think, also true, and we’re paying for those cheap calories through our health care expenses.

But I question this 6 percent figure. It seems impossibly low, and the Gates Foundation’s chart is drawn so vividly that it makes me suspicious. (Why is the bar for India’s food expenditures several times taller than the bar for all its expenditures? Even if the numbers are wrong, the chart is exaggerated for visual effect.) So I dug a little deeper. Continue reading “How much do Americans actually spend on food? (And how much should we?)”

Juliet Corson teaches the poor to cook, 1877

Juliet Corson, cooking teacher and writer and founder of the New York Cooking School, was born this date in 1841. Amid the excess and middle-class striving of the Gilded Age, Corson saw the hardships of working families — perhaps because a bad family situation had forced her out on her own at the age of 18 — and she made it a personal crusade to teach working-class women to cook as a way of improving their lives. Well-off women paid her bills, but she used the proceeds to offer inexpensive and free classes to the wives and daughters of working men. Some of those classes focused on helping women find work as professional cooks to the wealthy, but Corson was equally committed to improving their home cooking.

In 1877, after four years of double-digit unemployment and a nationwide railroad strike violently suppressed by federal troops, Corson printed a pamphlet called “Fifteen Cent Dinners for Working-Men’s Families” and distributed fifty thousand copies at her own expense. The pamphlet offered simple, balanced meals to feed a family of six at a cost of three dollars a week (about $65 today). This was not exciting food; a typical day’s meals in Corson’s book included breakfast of broth and bread, a dinner of mutton and turnips, and a supper of macaroni and cheese, or perhaps lentils. Corson’s advice was unflinchingly, and sometimes unpleasantly, practical, as in these instructions on buying second-quality meats: Continue reading “Juliet Corson teaches the poor to cook, 1877”

Are personal recipes more usable?

When I asked last week which cookbooks and authors offer the most usable recipes, I got some interesting responses. Some people listed cookbooks that really are teaching cookbooks for true beginners, while others listed authors whose recipes are easy to refer to and cook from once you know what you’re doing. It should be fairly easy to identify the former sort, though there aren’t many — assuming it’s possible to learn to cook from a book at all. But I had a harder time seeing what the easy-reference, quick-idea works have in common.

Then a friend pointed out that Mollie Katzen’s Moosewood Cookbook is one of her favorites in part because Katzen doesn’t lock a cook in; she gives a basic formula and then, usually, offers variations. Flipping through the cookbook again, I realized that it isn’t just that Katzen offers specific variations; it’s that her entire style encourages you to go your own way. She handwrote her recipes and decorated the margins of the pages, and her tone is that of a friend passing on her recipes. You couldn’t possibly think you were meant to take her advice as gospel — not that she isn’t reliable, but that she doesn’t come off as remotely prescriptive.

What’s more, though, she doesn’t even consistently offer linear instructions. Look at, for example, this recipe for lentil soup: Continue reading “Are personal recipes more usable?”

Why are recipes so hard to use?

Yesterday I baked (with help from my daughter) the citrus-almond cake from Mark Bittman and Sam Sifton’s Feast in a Day, which ran in the New York Times Sunday Magazine the week before Christmas. We had a third of a very large gift box of oranges and grapefruit that needs not to be wasted, and, well, enough with the cookies, you know? It intrigued me; it’s made with ground almonds, olive oil, and a whole puréed orange and lemon. And it was wonderful. In fact this might be my ideal cake: It’s got a complex, fruity flavor (I prefer fruit and nut desserts to cakes generally anyway), the sweetness is balanced by the slight bitterness of the orange peel, and it’s dense and moist without being at all heavy.

But I found the recipe itself, at least in the print magazine, annoying. It was printed in tiny type and crammed off to the side of the page to make room for photos of, I don’t know, olives or something. (I know what an olive looks like. I’m not impressed.) I had trouble figuring it out initially, and it was picky without explaining anything. I had the distinct impression that while the point of the article was that you could cook a feast in eight hours, nobody thought you actually would try to cook any of this.

The more I thought about it, though, the problems with this recipe are the problems with practically every published recipe these days. They’re too wordy and dense to be skimmed or consulted quickly by an experienced cook, but they don’t give a real beginner enough help to be successful. They’re didactic without teaching. The problem isn’t Bittman and Sifton (Bittman, when he has the space, does an excellent job explaining why you’re doing what you’re doing and what you really need to pay attention to); this is the standard way recipes are written. Continue reading “Why are recipes so hard to use?”