A Harris Poll conducted earlier this month revealed what we have long suspected during this recession: Americans are not eating out as much, preferring to stay at home to cook. In the Harris Poll, conducted in an on-line poll between March 9 and March 16 about their upcoming spending plans, three-quarters of the 2,355 Americans polled said they would decrease spending on eating out in restaurants (74%) and on entertainment (74%). These figures are up from November, when 64% and 65% of them, respectively, predicted their spending behavior.
For their part, some of the nation’s restaurant chains have responded with recession “specials” –think of the $9.99 specials at Applebee’s or the reduced steak deals at Outback. It’s hard to believe, but even with these prices, consumers are not necessarily breaking the doors down to nab one of those intensely fattening Bloomin’ Onions (2210 calories, 134 grams of fat!) or those supposedly authentic-Tuscan pasta bowls at the rotten corporate Italian institution known as Olive Garden. Only places like McDonald’s, which is doing very well in this economy with their dollar menus and “mini-meal” deals, seem like decent low-cost options, even though they aren’t the healthiest places by any means. How about the latest fancy-schmancy oyster bar or steakhouse, the one that everyone is raving about, the one with the $120 prix fixe deal? Unless you are making serious bank or you simply don’t care about spending, you’d have to be crazy to spend this kind of cash when so many people are living paycheck-to-paycheck –or with no paycheck at all.
This is where Clara Cannucciari, a 93-year-old great-grandmother from upstate New York comes in. She is the unlikely star of “Depression Cooking”, a series of videos on YouTube that feature the no-nonsense but gentle grandma preparing some rather simple and inexpensive dishes. Not only is this a fascinating how-to, an instructive way to prepare dishes on the very cheap, but they are a window to some history. Yes, this series, captured by her grandson Christopher, uses the word “Depression”, since that pretty much illustrates the dire straits that so many people across the country are in to make these cooking videos such a success.
It’s all no-frills here in Clara’s modest kitchen: no fancy colored-lacquer Kitchen-Aid mixers or food processors. There’s not even an OXO vegetable peeler. That’s Clara carefully chopping potatoes in her hands with a paring knife. No pricey orange Rachael Ray pans to deal with. She does everything in one pan. Which makes sense, because, well, that’s how she learned to cook when she was a young girl when the rest of the country was struggling to make ends meet.
In the first video, “Pasta with Peas”, she prepares a nourishing dish that probably costs less than a dollar per serving to make. How could it not? She chops up a potato, cooks it in olive oil, places some peas and onions inside to make them soft, then adds water, adds the pasta, and the result is something that is surely filling, even if it isn’t something that would come off the marbled countertops on the Food Network.
The next video, in which Clara prepares Peppers and Eggs, is even simpler. I’d bet that with this economy, egg consumption is up; you gotta have some protein, and people aren’t eating eggs for breakfast anymore. Well, neither was Clara in the early 30s. How could you resist such a simple dish? Grab a red bell pepper, slice it and fry it in the oil, add the beaten eggs, and plenty of salt to taste. The eggs go in after the peppers have softened, and they will set in a few minutes. You want to call it a “frittata”? Would that make you feel better?
You’re missing the point: there are only three ingredients here and these videos remind you of an earlier era when we didn’t have such easy access to other items that are not needed, or even expensive ones that are pretty much indulgences. Would it be so hard to eat this simple dish, and not feel that you have to add some chives, a dollop of chevre, a small splash of heavy cream, some dots of caviar even?
Part of the reason that these videos have caught on with so many is, I think, the fact that they cause us to rethink and refocus. Through her stories about her childhood from an era in which everyone had to tighten their belts and become resourceful, it is inspiring to hear what it’s like to not have to have all the conveniences of life, especially whenwe as a society have become so used to having it all.
It isn’t conspicuous consumption by any means, but then how many people can actually afford to stop by Whole Foods and pay $22.99 a pound for prepared Wild Alaskan salmon? If we can’t realize how simple ingredients such as eggs, pasta, potatoes and canned vegetables (I love how they took the label off and just wrote “peas”) are, then we’re not being very responsible with this the most basic of all of our daily expenses –let’s just roll the mini-van for the bucket of Popcorn Chicken with the Colonel again.
Recipes For a Recession
If it’s a Depression we’re (almost) living in, fine, but we really have to find a way to become leaner and appreciate what it means to actually walk into our kitchens, find a pan, fill it with water, add pasta, and start building some simple and delicious meals. And work at it. And try again and again because not every meal has to be from a ‘to-go’ menu at Ruby Tuesday or packed up in a box already prepared at Safeway. Clara reminds us that we have a lot of what we need already in our pantries and fridges. And as we try her dishes and listen to her stories, we may one day appreciate what ingredients we don’t need in order to make it in these tough times.