The Leftover File

Hope your Thanksgiving was tasty, warm, and filled with friends and family, recharging your gratitude tanks. The holiday recaps I've heard range from "we ate so much that we weren't hungry all the next day," to "I'm proud that I managed to fill my plate, stay away from seconds, and didn't feel ill afterward," to--at the other end of the spectrum--"our family usually goes for a walk around Lake Washington while the turkey is roasting." Goes for a walk? It crossed my mind, the thought of exercising, as I lay on the floor watching football afterward, but that's as far as that went. Instead I only roused enough energy to put on the sweatpants I was smart enough to pack for just such an occasion.

Sadly, we've eaten up the leftovers, but if you still have mashed potatoes lingering in the fridge, give Deborah Madison's mashed potato cakes recipe a try, from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. I served these up with her applesauce (made from leftover market Jonagolds that didn't fit in the pie) and sour cream. Yum.

Mashed Potato Cakes
2-1/2 cups mashed potatoes
1 cup dried bread crumbs (I just ground up a bread heel in the food processor)
clarified butter or olive oil for frying

Shape the potatoes into 12 round or oval cakes about 3/4" thick. Coat them with bread crumbs and set on wax paper. Film a heavy skillet with some of the butter and set over medium heat. When HOT, add the cakes and cook until golden, about 5 minutes. Flip and fry on the second side.

She also suggests serving them with sauteed onions, which I'll have to try next Thanksgiving!

Besides lying around in my food-induced coma, I managed to get through one book off my UrbanFarmJunkie to-read list, for which I posted this review on Goodreads.

The American Way of Eating by Tracie McMillan. (3.3 of 5 stars.) McMillan goes "under cover" as a migrant worker, a Wal-Mart stocker, and an Applebee's "expediter" to understand where our American food system goes wrong. (I say "under cover" in quotes because I can't imagine--given that she's white and small in stature with soft hands--anyone in the California fields was fooled by her story that she just wanted to work hard and not think about things or talk to people.)

What she discovers will not be too earth-shattering for people who read about our food system. Field workers are under-paid by the piece, which then gets converted to minimum wage, resulting in ludicrous pay statements that say they only worked a couple hours that day. McMillan claims that, in the price of your average supermarket apple, the cost of growing/harvesting it amounts to 16% of its price, with marketing infrastructure making up the remaining 84%. Thus, if wages to workers were increased by 40%, the resulting increase to the average American family's annual produce bill would be about $16. Count me in! I look forward to chats with my local farmers market farmers next spring about how they would divvy up their costs. Given that their produce prices are comparable or only slightly lower than supermarkets, does that mean more of the money makes its way to the farmer and workers?

The Wal-Mart produce section wasn't such a shocker, though I didn't realize 1 in 4 American produce dollars gets spent there. Things get wasted, things get "crisped", things don't have a lot of flavor. The pay is lousy, full-time employment is hard to come by, overtime is avoided. Uh-huh. Interesting that, when Wal-Mart has a lot of competition in the food department, their prices are lower. If there's just them, or them and another store, they're not that much cheaper. Also, because of their ginormous deals, they're your go-to folks for shelf-stable, processed, fake foods.

Applebee's was another case of overwork and underpay, not to mention Olive-Garden-style nuked and reheated pre-prepped food. The discussion of how the assembly-line model moved from manufacturing to food service was interesting. I had no idea it began around the turn of the century (the 20th, that is).

Because she worked at survival wages for a couple months in each situation, McMillan's heart is with bringing decent food and wages to every class in America, not just the middle-class and beyond, happy with their organic produce and farmers markets. The rise of urban gardening in Detroit and the new availability of fresh produce in food deserts are two hopeful trends, as is the modification of the food-stamp program to require fresh fruits and vegetables. As she points out, the underpaid have both less time to spend on home cooking and less money for great ingredients, but, at least among the migrant workers, there was still plenty of cooking and shared food happening. Maybe such a return to community division of labor would make better eating possible for more of the population.

If this subject interests you, you might also enjoy CHANGE COMES TO DINNER by Katherine Gustafson (discussion of hopeful signs in how Americans are relating to food and getting fed).

Next up I had a foodie-type memoir, but I abandoned it fairly early on, biased perhaps by the recent New York Times article on how memoirists need to make sure they have something that needs saying. As I read about the author's unloved childhood and pot-smoking college ventures, I had the tired feeling this story was all too common, and I didn't feel like slogging through to where the risotto saved her. Never fear, however! My UFJ to-read list remains six books long, and growing...