Monday, May 02, 2022

Food Prices And Cooking

      Food prices started up as the pandemic grew, driven by a combination of intangibles -- consumer worry and uncertainty -- and very tangible issues: most kinds of food processing require a lot of "touch labor," busy hands, often in close proximity.  So food processing work, especially for meat, easily became a kind of "superspreader."  That meant lengthy shut-downs, expensive modifications to production lines and even pay increases.   (It's a tribute to the industry and an insight into how the virus spreads that outbreaks were limited to workers and people they came into direct contact with, not consumers.)

      There are over 35,000 food processing facilities in the U.S., ranging from little regional potato-chip makers to vast factories employing tens of thousands.  We never ran out of food, though at times ham or big-brand chicken got scarce, while beef prices just kept going up.

      The latest panicky rumor going around is that food shortages are right around the corner, egged on by comments from politicians concerned about the war in Ukraine and overhyped reporting of over a year's worth of fires at food-processing facilities.  It has been showing up as memes claiming from eighteen to twenty-two "mysterious" fires.  But they're not mysterious; any search engine calls up multiple articles investigating the issue.  The causes of most of the fires were quickly determined (insurance companies and fire inspectors being sooo picky about these things) and the simple truth is, twenty-some fires among 35,000 different joints turning critters and plants into breakfast and dinner isn't even statistically unusual.  It's what the insurance actuaries expect, as is the range of damage.  The fires have affected 0.063% of the facilities, taking the largest figure and including one that was, in fact, a long-empty building.

      So no, we're not going to run out of food, and that includes the kinds of wheat and rye grown in Ukraine.  The U.S. and Canada are net exporters of both grains.  Third-world countries aren't going to fare as well.  (Russian grain exports will also likely fall, largely due to sanctions.)

      On the other hand, we're paying more for food these days.  Having spent a lot of my adult life with an income in the lower end of middle class or lower, I'm used to food being costly in terms of how many hours I have to work to buy a couple of bags of groceries.  There are tricks to dealing with it.

       One of the most powerful and basic is, you can trade time for money when you buy and cook food.  Dry beans are tasty, filling and nourishing -- but even after soaking overnight, they have to simmer for most of a day and they take looking after.  If you get weekends off, you can cook up a big batch, freeze meal-sized amounts, and parcel them out over time.  Frozen cooked beans keep well -- the trick is to freeze them in containers with a lot of surface area so they'll quickly freeze all the way through.  Gallon-sized freezer bags work well, if you freeze them flat and don't stack them until after they're frozen.

      Meat is the same way.  London Broil is among the more affordable cuts of beef and Boston Butt pork is ringing up at $3.99 a pound at our local grocer.  Beef stew meat is generally the same price as ground beef, and makes a nice treat.  Every one of those needs to be cooked for hours, low and slow; you can't slap it in a pan or on the grill and serve it up rare in under ten minutes.  Marinating helps.  And making big batches, then freezing the leftovers for later lets you make use of available cooking time.

      With vegetables, the more work you have to do, the cheaper they are.  Frozen or canned is still pretty cheap and keeps well, but for familiar vegetables, buying fresh is much cheaper.  Potatoes and onions keep well in a cool, dark cabinet; other root vegetables will stay happy in the fridge for roughly a week if not longer.  The above-ground stuff usually doesn't last as long; I wrap celery in aluminum foil to make it last but it's still a race to use it up before it goes brown.  If you have time to prep and cook them, it can be much cheaper to buy fresh vegetables and in my opinion, they taste better. (Canned beans are an exception.  They're one of the cheaper canned foods and keep well.  They're about as good as dried or fresh, but look out: they often have excess salt.  This can can make it more difficult to cook them with ham, especially "seasoning ham," which can be plenty salty itself.  Low-salt versions are becoming more available and rarely cost more.  You can also add a couple of cut-up potatoes; they'll balance the flavor by soaking up the salt and make for lower salt per serving.)

      The freezer and fridge are your friends, and so are those old cookbooks gathering dust.  Time can be an ally -- one of the worst periods of my life was when I was working two full-time jobs to make ends meet, three sixteen-hour days and four eight-hour days every week.  There was barely time to do laundry and there wasn't time to cook.  I ate what was quick and affordable, and pined for my own cooking. 

      Though most of human history, we have struggled to get enough to eat.  One of the great wonders of modern civilization is that more people than ever before get sufficient food (and, tragically, some still do not).  While abundance has made food less expensive, you still pay extra for convenience -- and you can save considerably by leveraging inconvenience.


Cop Car said...

If you needed a second job, these days, I would recommend you hire-out as a chef!

My 6-quart pressure cooker makes shorter work of dried beans. When reduced to using canned beans, I rinse them in running water - per my nephrologist - to keep to a reduced sodium input.

Bob said...

I find I never need to soak beans overnight. Maybe just a little longer in the pot to cook. Saves a lot of, "whoops I forgot to soak them last night, so no beans today."

Blackwing1 said...

When in my poverty-stricken days, first in college and then taking a year of "retirement" at age 32, I found there were several things that could significantly reduce my food bills.

Crock-pot cooking (aka, "slow cookers") are your friend when you want to have a hot, home-cooked meal at the end of a day of working a lousy job or two. Buying cheap cuts of meat is still pretty expensive, but chicken on sale freezes really well, and if you package it for portions before freezing it you only have to take out as much as you need. Slow cooking things like beans, lentils, and split peas works great since they can go for 10 or 12 hours without any attention.

In my college days I found that venison was incredibly inexpensive, even given the cost of a deer license, if you hunted with friends/acquaintances who didn't care for the meat, but only for the hunt. I routinely got two or three deer every year even if I didn't personally shoot one, and the processor in our small town used to set up a big tent in the meat market's parking lot (required by code to separate the commercial facility from the game processing) to cut up deer. For a very small charge he'd add pork lard and beef fat/tallow to your venison burger, which is about the only way to be able to eat it. Slow roasting a chunk of venison in an ultra-cheap red wine-based sauce is a good way to make multiple meals worth of "venison bourguignon".

Similarly a fishing license was a great way to add protein to a diet. My family has an ethnic (Macedonian) recipe for baked fish, but it requires some pretty big fish to come out right (a nice-sized northern pike, of a couple of big bass work well). Freezing fish also works great; I used to pack a bunch of sunfish and crappies in half-gallon milk cartons with a little water and freeze them solid.

Basic food and simple nutrition in this country is still so darned cheap that all it requires is a little bit of work and planning. There's a reason why, in the US, the wealthy are trim while the poor are fat. This didn't used to be the case; look at the pictures of people during the Depression; everybody but the wealthy were fairly skinny.

Roberta X said...

Bob, opinion is divided, but it appears you are in good company in the non-soaking camp. Even that writer notes that very dry beans may need soaking. I grew up with "very dry beans," stored for years at a time. YMMV.

Blackwing1, thanks for that contribution.

Cop Car, thank you, too! I'd have to be a chef for very tolerant diners -- a lot of the time, I'm not entirely sure where I'm headed when I set out to make a meal.