Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Chicken Soup Story

One day in April, just as the snow was starting to melt, my husband and I drove up a hill to a farm that sells apple-smoked, free-range chicken.  The road to the farm was long and rutted, so as long as we were there we figured we might as well buy six birds.  The farmer gave us a quantity discount, but even so, those chickens were not cheap.

Here's what I did with the first chicken.  After we had dined for over a week on the legs and breasts, I put the carcass into my big stock pot, with carrots, celery, onion and water, and simmered it for 24 hours, adding a bunch of parsley during the last ten minutes.  This is the method advocated by the Nourishing Traditions cookbook, and stock made in this manner is supposed to do you a world of good.

When the stock was cool, I strained it into nine quart jars, which I put in the freezer.  Then came the job that I detest:  boning the carcass to get the last bits of meat.  It's nasty, greasy work, even with rubber gloves on, and it takes forever.  The bones (every last one, I hope) went into the garbage;  the limp veggies and the skin and any weird-looking bits of meat went into the freezer for future dog meals;  and a scant two cups of meat went into freezer bags to be added to soup or tomato sauce or a casserole for dinner some day.  Then I cleaned up, and took a nap.

When we're done with that chicken, I figure we will have gotten some sixteen main dishes for two out of it.  So maybe it wasn't so expensive after all.

But the reason I'm writing about making chicken stock is that the whole time I was doing it I was thinking how difficult it would be for someone in financial straits to squeeze every penny out of a chicken this way.  I imagined a lone woman with a couple of children and a job.  Once she and the kids have eaten most of the bird, it's time to make stock.  But first, she has to have a freezer in which to store the stock, and a book to tell her how to make it.  The carrots and the celery and the parsley might require an extra trip to the grocery store.  And she needs to have the energy and focus, after the stock has simmered for a day, after she has fed the kids and put them to bed, to spend a couple of hours straining the stock and boning the carcass and cleaning up.

Perhaps most importantly, she needs to have grown up in a culture in which chicken carcasses are not thrown out, but made into soup.  It is still possible (though it's getting harder every day) in this country to eat cheaply and reasonably well, but it takes time and effort and knowledge.  It helps if you know that beans and rice together make a complete protein, for instance, and that you can make a quart of milk go farther if you mix it with reconstituted powdered milk.  (We're talking economic survival here, so anything organic that you don't grow yourself is probably out of the question.)

The director of the local food bank (http://communityfoodcupboard.org/) tells me that one of her staff's main challenges is to teach the clients, many of whom grew up on processed convenience foods, strategies for eating cheaply and well.  Food is a touchy issue for all of us.  Our attitudes towards it are formed in earliest childhood, and are deeply ingrained.  So the food bank staff faces an uphill struggle.

Although attitudes towards food are evolving, the trend towards locally-grown non-processed (let alone organic) food is evident mostly among the well-to-do.  However, I read somewhere that significant changes usually begin at the upper strata of society, and eventually filter down to the rest of the population.  So maybe there is hope after all.  Some day there will be a chicken carcass in every stock pot.  I wish it would happen during my lifetime.

9 comments :

  1. Exactly, exactly, exactly. Even more than rural poor, I would think, the urban poor are faced with even more challenges regarding food. If there isn't a grocery store that sells produce, then you don't have carrots and celery to throw into that pot to make stock. When you eat soup, it comes from a can.

    My family NEVER handled a chicken carcass this way. My grandmothers did, of course, but not my parents. I do, and I use the stock all the time. But even though I don't have a childhood memory of making stock, I do have: a pot, ends of fresh veggies I need to use up, a mennonite cookbook that often helps me eat cheaply and well, a freezer, and a whole chicken.

    This is why we're starting a farm to table program at my kids' school, where 60% of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch. We hope to open the door to "this is how you do it cheap, healthy, and tasty" for both our kids and for their parents. It will have to be stealthy and baby-steps, because you're right, food is a touchy subject and many people are offended--hell, all of us are offended--when people are critical of our food choices. But when we look at the statistics--2 out of 3 girls who grow up in a family that qualifies for free or reduced lunch develop type two diabetes as an adult, for instance--we know we have to try.

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  2. Oh, and I always throw in a splash of vinegar to help leach some of that calcium out of the bones....

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  3. It's programs like the one at your school that give me hope.

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  4. When teaching food prep techniques to "low income" homemakers in Macon, GA in the early 70s, I will never forget the smell of chitlins cooking in vinegar. It was worse than horrible.

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  5. Isn't it amazing how we learn and what from who(m). My mother was so happy to have canned foods and frozen and easy peasy cooking. What I learned about gardening came from what I saw my grandmother doing. She gardened extensively from pure love in her later life, even though there was only her and my grandfather. She canned and pickled and shared. I loved going into the cellar to see the planks of dusty shelves and the cans all lined up and labeled and dated. Grandpa made saukerkraut in the winter and they knew how to dry seeds and beans for the following season. I wish I only knew half of what she did!

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  6. This is beautiful, jaimie. These skills and interests do seem to have skipped a generation. But I'm so glad they're back with people like you.

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  7. yes! the time and energy are the biggest obstacles, i think. because she's probably working long hours at a job, or maybe at two jobs, to make rent. convenience foods, unhealthy as they may be, allow us to keep working. it's kind of a backwards system, when you think about it.

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  8. Every time I hear about slow food and slow living, I think about the working poor.

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