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07.23.08

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A Girl's Gotta Eat

Money Changes Every Taste

By Carolyn Jung


SUPPOSE a potato cost $100? Would you treat it differently? Scrutinize it in a vastly different way? You bet you would. That intriguing notion was posed at a conference a couple years ago at the Culinary Institute of America's Greystone Campus in St. Helena. It was asked by none other than Ferran Adria, Spain's most thought-provoking chef, who popularized molecular gastronomy. Yes, the man famous for manipulating ingredients with liquid nitrogen, xanthum gum and smoke chambers was asking all of us to consider the humble spud in a whole new light.

And for good reason. Price often determines perception. In our consumer-driven society, we tend to take for granted what's cheap and to value more highly what's pricey. Gap jeans vs. a pair of 7 for All Mankind's. A meal at Denny's vs. dinner at the posh Plumed Horse in Saratoga.

Indeed, when Pizza Antica opened in San Jose's Santana Row five years ago, it had a hard time enticing customers through the door. They'd spy the extremely moderate prices on the posted menu, then walk away, thinking the food couldn't possibly be any good, recalls chef-partner Gordon Drysdale. It was only after he hiked prices that crowds started flocking in. A potato might not yet carry an outrageous price tag. But with gas prices rising, food costs soaring and the economy in a nosedive, all of us are feeling the pinch. It's spurring us to look at what we eat through a vastly different lens. It's making us appreciate the bounty we have. And that's not such a bad thing.

Just consider: The average American household wastes 14 percent of food purchases, according to a 2004 University of Arizona study. Nationwide, that adds up to $43 billion. Worldwide, it's even worse. A 2005 study by UC-Davis estimated that one-third of all fresh fruits and vegetables grown are never consumed by humans. We end up throwing out a lot because we haven't stored it properly or failed to use it before it deteriorated.

I'm as guilty as the next person. There have been times I've bought a pint of milk to make a recipe, only to forget about the remainder in the fridge and then have to toss it out because it spoiled. There are times I neglected to use up a bunch of green onions, only to have them shrivel and turn slimy in the bottom of the produce drawer. You can bet I wouldn't have let that happen if those dirt-cheap green onions had cost me a wad of green Andrew Jacksons instead.

My friends and I sometimes roll our eyes at how our elderly relatives refuse to throw anything out. But when you've endured the Depression or World War II food shortages, you value every little bit. For the most part, we of this generation have never had to go through such harrowing times. Maybe we're more jaded because of it. After all, our grandparents spent about 24 percent of their disposable income on food in 1929, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. In 2006, we spent just under 10 percent. And we're complaining?

Maybe what we ought to do is just eat wiser. Embrace the challenge of wasting less. Examine every ingredient, and use our imagination to figure out how to use every bit of it, just as generations before us did. Not only will it save us money, but it'll make us more creative cooks, to boot. That leftover half cup of whipping cream? Thin it with a little water and use it to make pancake batter instead of milk. Parmesan cheese rinds you usually toss? Freeze them to add phenomenal flavor to soups or stews in the winter. Just wrap them in cheesecloth and put into the pot; remove before serving. Those crusty ends of bread loaves we normally discard? Freeze them until you need bread crumbs; or make croutons or bread pudding with them. Slimy veggies? Peel off the exterior to uncover the part that is still fine. Cook in broth, purée in a blender, then thin with a little cream or buttermilk, and enjoy as a hot or cold soup. And stop racing to the store to buy all those herbs. Grow your own instead.

What if a potato cost $100? I wouldn't just scarf it down without a thought. I'd concentrate on every bite, letting the flavor, texture and memory linger as long as possible. Maybe we should view every ingredient we buy as if it had cost $100. We'd treat all of our food with more reverence then, wouldn't we? In these challenging economic times, it's definitely food for thought.


Carolyn Jung is a Santa Clara–based food and wine writer who blogs at www.foodgal.com


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