Notes From My Knapsack 2-9-12
Dreaming of dinner, one entrée at a time
Teaching the Lad a few new recipes, I'm reminded as we chop and stir that most "authentic" cuisine of various cultures is based on a single, central principle: stretching.
Just to clarify, Chinese food in China isn't large quantities of deep-fried meat with a few scraps of largely ornamental and uneaten cabbage and carrots; Mexican food in Mexico does not center on large dollops of sour cream and a thick coating of cheese. Et cetera.
There are for various places on the globe what are called "staples," rice in Asia, pasta in Italy, rotting fish sauce in ancient Rome (and now you know what happened to their empire). Somewhere south of the Rio Grande I'm sure refried beans are relatively common, even if not to Taco Bell levels.
But the rest of what is the traditional set of recipes is usually based around taking an often scant amount of protein, whether meat or eggs (or legumes for the vegans out there), and making a filling meal with a bit, enough of the protein getting to each of the many people around the family table.
So fajitas were a way to take a cut of meat, and along with tortillas and peppers and onions, make sure everyone got some. Egg rolls took a single serving of pork, minced it fine, rolled it up with a bunch of cabbage and a wonton wrapper, and along with some oil (sure, deep frying isn't all bad) got a sense of heft into everyone's belly. And so on.
Northern Europe liked more meat when they could get it (and who doesn't? Sorry, vegans), and when they came over and carved out their homesteads in the New World, they didn't recognize the plant foods other than nuts, and it took a while to open up garden plots, let alone learn what vegetables they could grow. Meanwhile, deer and bear and turkey meat was plentiful, so much so that in pioneer accounts, a mere piece of fresh bread was a dessert-level delicacy, and a sandwich was often a piece of deer meat between two slices of bear meat. As Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up.
So we got used to a very meat-centric diet; as immigrants came to this land of milk and meat, they adapted into the plenty formerly only known in palaces with obvious glee. In fact, I can recall as a kid that pasta wasn't considered a decent meal, which you would hear older folks say was because you went back to a plate of pasta for dinner when money was tight: a successful man had meat on the table for his family every night.
Times, indeed, have changed. It's helpful to know they changed to get us here, too. I'm not a vegetarian, but a meal without meat in our house isn't a sign of either poverty or that someone forgot to go to the store.
Most dieticians, and Michael Pollan with other sustainability advocates, all ask us to think about meat as more of a garnish than as the weighty center of a meal. Big chunks of meat, whole or processed, go through our physical selves and internal systems differently when we spend our day as a steelworker or farmer, as opposed to when we sit all week at work.
Two generations back and more, meat meant a big part of the American dream was fulfilled right there on the dinner table. We can celebrate successes and live a happy life, maybe happier, if we look back at some of the elegant original recipes in our history that bring a bit more of the field and farm to the table than the stockyard.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he likes to grill steaks in the summer, right next to the sweet corn in the husk. Tell him your dinnertime dreams at email@example.com, or follow Knapsack @Twitter.