Sustain-ability: The Pemmican Edition (also Food Post part 4)

Eating healthy and locally are an extremely important aspect of how I see a sustainable life. Briefly, our food supply is incredibly fragile and supporting local agriculture is not only good for your community and good for your health, but could someday be the difference between eating and not. But eating that way isn't easy.

Recently, a story made the news rounds about a new study that supposedly showed that Americans now get a majority of their calories from "highly processed foods" -- an average of over 60% . It also pointed out how very, very bad this kind of food is for you. The study actually took the useful step of categorizing processed foods into categories:

Using software that picked out words in the nutrition and ingredient labels, the 1.2 million products were placed into one of four categories : minimally processed—products with very little alteration, like bagged salad, frozen meat and eggs—basic processed—single-ingredient foods but changed in some way, like oil, flour and sugar—moderately processed—still recognizable as its original plant or animal source, but with additives—and highly processed—multi-ingredient industrial mixtures that are no longer recognizable as their original plant or animal source. -- Time Magazine


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Obviously the more processed the food, the worse it is for you. Hence the pressure to shop around the edges of the grocery store, cook from scratch, and only buy products with less than five ingredients that your grandmothers would all recognize.

Great, excellent, because we all have time to be baking our own bread and making ketchup from scratch (though home fermented ketchup is awesome).

If you are a typical busy person this kind of advice can be a bit demoralizing. The idea that in order to be both healthy and sustainable, you need to avoid the wide world of processed foods and spend hours in the kitchen every day making everything from scratch, has become pervasive. But fortunately, it's also wrong.

The thing to remember is that prepared foods don't have to be bad. They are typically bad because of industrial food processing and ingredients. But from our earliest days of being human, we have always modified the foods we eat. This includes both preservation (drying and smoking were probably the first) as well as processing (which brings us back to pemmican -- or lembas bread if you want to be more romantic about it).

See, we all know it's better to come home, throw some salmon under the broiler, and have a nice salad. But it's not always easy to do. Sometimes you don't have the ingredients for a quick healthy meal like the above. And sometimes you don't have the time and energy to cook. These are the times that frozen meals, take out, or -- heaven forbid -- drive through start to get really tempting.

On my big weekend grocery run, I always try to pick up a few things that are just that fast and easy, but that are still healthy. Think organic and all natural fresh mushroom ravioli or sustainably-caught and all organic frozen salmon burgers. Now to be clear, these are still processed foods, but they are more on the order of moderately processed (I can identify and recognize every ingredient and know their quality -- their provenance so to speak). This gives our family the option of having something very quick to eat without feeling like we're eating utter crap.

The one problem is, of course, the cost. I could pick up processed industry-meals, filled with petroleum products and the cheapest ingredients -- all padded with corn and soy derivatives -- for far cheaper than real ingredients. But the organic, all-natural versions of those meals cost way, way more.

This is really unfair by the way. Other countries have much healthier versions of prepared foods and even take out foods. My last trip to London, there was a small breakfast shop near the hotel. Every morning, for the equivalent of about $10, I could have farm fresh eggs, natural sausage, lovely yogurts, and so on. That's in the middle of the London banking district! This was a working person's take out joint, in the pre-office hours the place was crowded with suits having a quick bite or grabbing to go boxes. Half the nasty additives that are in everything in the US are completely outlawed in the EU.

I recently had a week off of work. Most of the week was taken up with a trip to a nearby city for vacation. However I had about four days at the front end with nothing going on. Saturday morning I woke up with a crazy idea. What if we spent some time making some processed foods of our own? Ones that were as good as the all-natural versions, but that wouldn't cost as much.

I got the spouses' buy-in (he's the chef, so I need his help with spices and techniques) and started by planning: hunting down recipes, planning out the work for the next few days, and identifying the items I'd need (of course I did). Then I did a grocery run and got started...

First, I butchered and skinned a free-range local chicken and put in into the pressure cooker with water and about three cups of stuff from our frozen "veggie broth" bin. After 12 minutes of cooking, we had perfectly tender meat and a very rich broth. Over the next few days, these would get turned into:

* Two chicken pot pies (with pre-made organic all butter crusts).
* Three batches of stacked chicken enchiladas (with pre-made high quality sauce).
* Dinner for several nights.

The pre-made elements were selected based on their quality, but also on the fact that I didn't want to spend ALL DAY cooking.

Then I put several large cans of organic tomatoes in the crock pot to cook down into sauce. The local Mediterranean store has really great hand made pizzas and they sell their dough by the pound so some of the sauce became frozen cheese pizzas. The rest got bagged for future pasta meals.

I also got some ground pork (local, not factory farmed) and turned it into sausage. I froze small balls of meat onto a couple of sheet trays and then bagged them. Now cheese pizza can become sausage pizza and pasta can have sauce with sausage.

This has already paid huge dividends in terms of our meals in the two weeks since. I think that a model where one or two weekends a month were dedicated to filling the freezer with a better version of processed food could be a really sustainable idea.

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