Thursday, April 10, 2008

A Dollar a Day- Could you do it?

There is a small ad that appears from time to time on this blog with the headline, " A Dollar a day". I wonder if those of us in wealthy countries could live on that if we tried. It would not be a question in most cases of having to, but just very simply of trying to, to see if we could do it.

What does a dollar buy you? A small bag of generic rice, pasta...sure. But what about flavour?

What can you make for a dollar's worth of ingredients? Think about make that stretch to feed you all day long. Right, you got it...only one meal.

At times when money has been lean while living in France, I began to see where many French dishes sprang from. One day, looking in my kitchen, a few days before the paycheck landed, I had a few things on hand...but what if I had to feed a family on this? What would I have done? What do and what have people done? I then saw the birth of many things I would have looked past otherwise like onion soup, croque monsieur, cassoulet....these are all poor dishes. The dishes created from want and need, born of tremendous creativity and the human desire for flavor despite circumstances. It takes a genius to take a few onions, a little olive oil, salt, pepper and if you're lucky, a beef bone and make a feast large enough for a family. I can see into the origins of this classic French dish like never before. I savour it when I taste it. I appreciate it. I hail the French!

Of course, this is not an ability unique to the French. The entire world has created dishes from need. A dollar a day...or less.

Give it a try on a day when you are feeling particularly low. On a day when the internal rains are pouring despite the sunshine outside. You will feel better.

Onion soup
Makes about 4 servings

1/8 cup olive oil
4 large onions, sliced
1 tablespoon flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
1 tablespoon Dijon-style mustard
4 cups water

Begin to saute the onions in a the olive oil on medium heat...cook until they just begin to caramelize, turning a soft golden brown. Now, sprinkle in the flour, mustard salt and pepper...continue to saute for just a few minutes.

Transfer the onion mixture to a large soup pot. Add the water. Cover. Cook on a gentle low heat
for about 2 hours.

If you do not have Dijon style mustard, improvise! Use what you can substitute a few dashes of Worcestershire sauce or even hot sauce.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Paris, Poverty and People

I have had the opportunity to travel. In those travels I have mixed and lived with people from backgrounds very distant from mine. Their experiences are truly worlds apart from my own yet within them I have found more than one element of similarity. Some that are leaps in the imagination to get to and others as close as your front door and as familiar as your old shoes.

If all of these elements, there is the singular element of food that is indeed the ultimate common denominator. When I lived in poor neighborhoods in Paris and shopped in the local grocery stores with my African, Arab and Asian neighbors, the familiar was always swirling around us. Universally loved flavors we all shared. Coca-Cola, bread, ice cream, frites...Others, were as foreign to me, like their roots and spices, as perhaps my eating pork was to many of them.The Halal butcher and the French butcher share a common practice but certainly their inventory was different.

My experiences in Paris, the immigrant Paris, has allowed me to see the quest for food from another angle. I recall one day standing in line at the check-out counter of the neighborhood ED supermarket. ED is a hard discount chain.Not much variety but the general basics in everything and not at all expensive compared to the Monoprixs and Champions. On this particular day, an elderly woman was paying, or attempting to pay for her items which consisted solely of a plastic wrapped package of Danish salami. Probably 30 ultra-thin slices in the pack. The woman who was dirty and poorly dressed in rags, really.. rags, reached into her thread bare coat pocket and pulled out a paper cup, probably an old espresso cup she found on the ground. In that cup which was serving as her wallet, were a few coins. her bony, dirty fingers reached into the cup for enough coins to pay. There was one customer between her and I ( I was third in line). The second customer, another woman, well dressed and attractive, offered to pay for her food. The cashier had been asking the first woman a question but she either did not understand or pretended to not understand. The second woman provided a coin or two and the first woman left without saying anything. "C'est pour manger, monsieur," the second woman said to the cashier.

As I watched this scene play out, I wondered if my compatriots would be as quick to pay for someone else's food like that. I'm sure it would happen there as well as here. And then I thought, how many times had I ever in my life seen a person so obviously impoverished in my country. Not often. They are there, but they are not often seen.

In Paris the impoverished live amongst the well off. There are poorer neighborhoods and extremely wealthy neighborhoods for sure. But that in and of itself does not determine whether a quartier's residents are eating or not eating on any given day. It is not a determinant of an average income or any income at all.

I still look in wonderment at people who have to survive in this city with no family to rely on nor good job to go to. These are the people who make literally something from nothing everyday. These are the survivors.

This blog therefore is dedicated to delving deeper into the cuisine of poverty. Poverty food. It is not an oxymoron. It is the fruit of the human race's quest not only for survival, but for survival with flavor, savour, spice and beauty. Some of the most delicious things have come from this and they are reminders of what we are capable of as human beings.