Saturday, May 17, 2014

Real Food

Where has all the real food gone?

When I moved to the Canadian prairies from the west coast, one of the first things that I noticed was the paucity of fresh fruits and vegetables in the grocery stores. The selection is limited, the quality is low, and the prices are high. 

I find this frustrating and disappointing. Before I moved here, I had my own greenhouse, as well as a garden and fruit trees. I grew enough organic fruit and vegetables to supply most of our family's produce needs from June to October. But here in the farm belt of Canada, even in the middle of summer, grocery store choices consist of limp carrots and droopy lettuce imported from the USA or Mexico. 

Another thing missing from the grocery stores here is fish. When I visited my daughter on the west cost recently, I almost wept when I saw the fish counter where she shops. Great fresh slabs of halibut, wild salmon, snapper, and sole. There were live oysters, clams and mussels, and and huge local prawns. In my prairie grocery store, the "fresh" fish is actually previously frozen, and it is anything but fresh. When I buy fish, I choose it from the freezer, and there is minimal variety. I cannot say that I am very surprised by this, as I discovered years ago that many prairie people do not like fish. 

However, I made another disconcerting discovery in the grocery store a few months ago. We were having guests for dinner, and I had planned to serve roasted Cornish game hens, stuffed with rice and cranberries. Shopping for the dinner I planned to prepare, I could not find any Cornish hens in the poultry freezer, so I went in search of the meat manager. 

"We don't have any right now," he said. "I think I've got some coming in next week." 

Next week wouldn't be soon enough for my dinner that evening, so I stood in the store trying to rethink my menu. I decided to buy a large package of chicken breasts, and make a recipe that is one of my old favourites -- chicken with apples, onions, and sour cream, simmered in a casserole. 

And then I discovered that the store did not have fresh chicken breasts! Once again, I approached the meat manager. He pointed out a couple of packages of individually wrapped boneless, skinless, not very fresh looking chicken breasts. 

"But I want a family pack of split, bone-in chicken breasts," I said. "I have bought them here [in this chain store] for years!" 

"Oh, we don't carry those large packages anymore. They don't sell. People don't want them," he said. 

People don't buy chicken breasts?! I have have always thought of them as a basic, if somewhat mundane, cooking staple. The store didn't have any fresh whole chickens either. So, In the end, I had to change my dinner menu again.

Since that experience, I have started to take note of what that grocery store actually does sell, given that it doesn't provide much of a fruit, vegetable, fish, or meat selection. In the meat section, there is a huge freezer that runs the length of the store. It is filled with frozen prepared foods, like egg rolls, teriyaki chicken wings, breaded fish sticks, corn dogs, pre-made frozen hamburger patties, and so on. There is another frozen food section that takes up an entire central aisle of the store. Frozen fruits and vegetables take up one small section, and the rest of it is devoted to TV dinners, frozen pizzas, perogies, frozen pies, and things like pizza pops. And, of course, there is a large section given over to ice cream. 

There is the junk food aisle with pop, chips, and candy. There is the cookie and cracker aisle, and a whole aisle just for packaged breakfast cereals. Yes, it is still possible to find rolled oats, and whole wheat flour, and raw almonds. But they are tucked in amongst the ever proliferating packaged and prepared foods and junk foods. 

I prefer to cook from scratch, using basic ingredients and adding my own sauces and flavourings. By cooking with fresh natural ingredients, I have more control over the salt, sugar, and fat components, and can avoid most of the preservatives and other chemical additives. Also, home cooking tastes better, and it is creatively satisfying to prepare interesting healthy meals. 

But real food seems to be disappearing from the grocery stores. The stores are huge, and the shelves are full of what appears to be endless variety at first glance. However, a closer inspection reveals that consumers mostly are being offered a choice between this prepared food or that prepared food, or yet another prepared food. To my mind, that is not real choice, and it is not what I would like to purchase or eat. 

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