Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Cheese Whiz Doesn't Grow On Coconut Trees (thank heavens)

Chuck Pruett was right when he told me I was going to miss Greenlife down here.  Actually that isn’t what he told me.  He said something about not having the choice about food down here that you do at home.  No but really, I don’t miss having hundreds of different food items to chose from- I can live happily with the massive variety of fruits, vegetables, and fish that are all locally grown and produced here.  But when I realize that I miss Greenlife is when I try to buy something that isn’t produced here.  At home at least I have the choice to buy organic rice or beans or good vinegar.  I don’t have to- I can buy the same stuff that’s sold down here at home because they are produced by these massive companies that have somehow snuck their way into every grocery nook and corner of the world.  Of course, I’m learning that the best way around using this junk is to keep local.  Vinegar has been totally replaced by lime and lemon juices.  Milk has turned into handmade coconut milk for most baking projects.  Any oils and fats are now either butter (the high-fat European kind which seems to be the best quality off-island product available) or delicious locally made coconut oil (the brown kind AND the white kind- each has it’s own place).

But there are some things that I just would rather not do without- like salt.  I tried to find salt the other day that didn’t have yellow prussiate of soda in it (that is added for anti-caking) and it wasn’t happenin.  Either it said it had it or it said nothing at all- which is not how I roll.  I am a very avid label-reader and would rather know what I’m eating.  And know all about it.  The worst thing about this whole salt dilemma and this yellow prussiate of soda is that it is so incredibly humid down here that it doesn’t do a bit of good.  The salt is still a big ol clump of weepy half solidified salt.  Just like it would be if it were left alone.   Here I am in the middle of a salty ocean and I am having a hard time finding salt that doesn’t have stuff added to it.  And it’s not just the salt, it’s everything.   Everything has something added to it that just doesn’t need to be there.  I thought it might be nice to buy some soy sauce the other day and it was loaded with caramel coloring, artificial flavors and worse.  Of course I am now sittin soy sauce-less.  Which is fine by me.  I’m not too terribly worried about the lack of soy sauce in my life.

I remember once the yoga place across the street was doing this thing where you revitalized your life in forty days or something like that.  You did yoga everyday there but also they were doing a diet that involved eating only on the outside aisles of Greenlife.  That means eating only the whole foods- the produce, meat, and dairy (the diet probably allowed the bulk aisle).  The point was to cut out any off the processed foods in the inner aisles- cereal, chips, crackers, etc.  I guess because I’ve never got in the habit of eating any of those (minus the chips, I probably make up for everything else I miss out of the processed food world in chips alone) that that didn’t seem like a problem to me.  But now I shop off of one shelf.  The rice and bean shelf.  Occasionally I’ll roam over to the cleaning supply shelf and search for dish soap that is not antibacterial or loaded with smells.

But before yall think I am some kind of hopelessly horrible snob I have to say that I am NOT.  I promise I really am not.  I AM a little spoiled of course but that has nothing to do with what I am talking about. I don’t think it is any way unreasonable to ask for soap that’s just SOAP- not laden down with artificial scents and chemicals guaranteed to kill off all bacteria living anywhere in it’s vicinity.  Some of us like a little bacteria or the way our hands smell without the help of fake ocean breezes. Before I came down here I was told that off-island things are both hard to find and expensive.  I was completely prepared for that.  I was ready for little stores stocked with the essentials- rice, beans, flour, sugar, salt…  It’s not that I can’t eat nice cheese everyday and use good olive oil that bothers me.  It’s that the only cheese in the local shop are actually hunks of  processed american cheese (not in ’singles’ form, just plain old hunks) and the oil is slightly rancid soybean or other vegetable oil.  I swear the stuff I bought smells like it’s been used before.  Like they might have accidentally bottled somebody’s diesel’s veggie oil.  When we asked the grocer where to find coconut oil he acted like it doesn’t exist, even though it is made right down the street or around the corner by a woman I have yet to meet but am enjoying her fresh, fragrant, smooth coconut oil all the same.

And I’m still not saying what I mean to say.  I’m not saying that I think there should be nice olive oil and excellent cheese- it isn’t a part of this culture at all and doesn’t belong here.  What I’m saying is I don’t understand why all that other junk even exists.  Why should it?  Why not just make soy sauce the way it is supposed to be made?  I’m sure it’s ‘cheaper’ to make soy sauce that isn’t actually soy sauce but some kind of water, flavor, color, salt combination but what’s the point?  If you have to go that far then why go there AT ALL?

And again, I’m not saying anything about the people here and their tastes.  It’s not their fault that their entire country’s stores are monopolized by huge junk food companies.

But TADA!  Here comes the glorious part about this whole situation.  The one thing that holds true is that off-island stuff IS expensive.  A bag of Lay’s potato chips costs nine dollars for pete’s sake.  A pint of icecream is $25.  (well that’s actually EC dollars- there are about 2.7 of those in an american dollars.  But still).

BUT this is what I realized amongst all of my frustration: poor people down here CAN’T eat junk.  (and most people are pretty poor).  The food that is the cheapest are avocados (I’ve seen them lying in the road), breadfruit, oranges, fish (a standard price is between 2-3 US dollars a pound),  pineapples, dasheen, coconuts… the list goes on and on.

Yeah.  So then I was thinking ok Ann- what if you moved to a new city or town in the US where you didn’t know anyone- no good groceries, farmers, nothing?  Easy- I would call/email/ask around and have met enough people to know where the good markets were in the community in a few day to a week.  Ok great.  NOW imagine you are in a suburb or outlaying town that you’ve never been to before and don’t know.   You live in an apartment with no yard and make minimum wage and have no car….  I would eventually make connections- maybe find a place to grow a garden.  But in the meantime- while I’m scrambling to pay the rent on my yardless apartment, not to mention all the rest?  I can see the corner store now.  No rice and bean shelf there.  Just cans, bottles, bags, jars and microwavable pouches with ingredients labels a mile long and not one even thinking about mentioning words like sustainable, local, organic, free-range, grassfed, fair-trade… I certainly would not find a gallon of milk that would provide any information about it other that it was Milk- pasteurized, homogenized, and maybe it‘s got some vitamin D added to it or maybe some of the fat has been taken away.  Nothing about what the cows ate, or what dairy the milk came from, or what the beliefs are of the people who run the dang thing.  It would be hard to even consider spending money on any of this. And this is not only because of strict moral reasons-  I simply don’t have the taste buds that will register this stuff as food.  I am pretty sure if I ate a smalltown America corner store diet for two weeks I would starve- and not from lack of ‘food’.

So.  This is all assuming I want to feed myself right.  And from the way it looks now in my little made up mind’s eye town  it’s super super hard.  What happens to the people who don’t even know they want to eat real yet?  The thought of a trip from my apartment to the nearest farmers market selling locally grown produce and grassfed meats or small grocery selling organic beans, rice, wheat, etc. seems about as easy as getting on a plane and flying to Greece to press my own olive oil.

And that’s what’s amazing about this island.  At first I thought I was SO frustrated because if you want to buy food that isn’t local it all just junk.  Then I thought, well, at least the local food has pretty much everything you could possibly need- all the fats, starches, proteins, flavor, texture, variety that a body could ever want.  And then I thought about the farmers market here.  It is packed every Saturday with simple ol people coming to buy the food for the week.  They hang out, laugh, talk, eat fish cakes and bakes fried right there, drink fresh coconut water, and buy food.  It’s simply amazing.  There are no price signs at the booths, much less explanations of what the food is.  If I ask what something is I either get told the price over and over again, ignored, or very informatively helped out-  ‘that’s breadnut, you boil it, skin it, put salt on it and eat it,’  ‘this is cassava flour, you boil it in milk to make a cereal’…    I have no idea how many little booths there are but there are lots and everyone probably stays til they sell out.  We got there once at about eight o’clock in the morning and there wasn’t much left besides oranges and a whole lot of dasheen- compared to what is there at six thirty this is a desert.

And then I thought well, in America at least we have the choice to buy what food we want.  I don’t HAVE to eat caramel colored soy sauce if I want soy sauce.  Here, there is no choice.  You get what you get.   That really bothered me until I realized that this “we” I was talking about that has this incredible variety of choice is actually not as large of a group as I originally thought.  Really it is “me” who has this choice because of the places I live and the people I know.  Unfortunately this isn’t how “we” all live.  There are a lot of people out there who think it’s ‘cheaper’ to eat the junk they find at the corner store or huge chain grocery, ‘cheaper’ to eat fast food for dinner.   Of course by now we all know that it really isn’t true.  We all know that you can go to a fast food joint and get a burger and fries and coke for about five bucks.  For five bucks you could get enough rice and beans and maybe even a sweet bell pepper or a head of lettuce to feed you at least two meals- or maybe a dozen happy healthy hen eggs and an apple. And of course, there are the health consequences of eating the fast food that will be more expensive than any grassfed filet mignon.   But although it’s not actually cheaper in the long run none of us can deny that it is easier to eat this stuff that passes as food.  Especially if you have lost the simple art of cooking for your own self from whole ingredients.

All of a sudden this first frustration about not having variety has turned into thankfulness.  Maybe at home we have too much variety- too may choices.   Here, to be poor means to feast on the bounty that grows from the ground you live on, cooked by your very own self.  You can’t cop out and eat McDonalds for supper because it doesn’t exist.  You can’t go to the store and get some hot pockets or whatever those pizza things are called and pop them in the microwave because- there is no frozen section in the store that carries them, and you most likely don’t have a microwave in the first place.  YES!  You can’t stock your shelves with sugar-chemical encrusted cereal,  neon chip snacks,  pop tarts, boxed mashed potatoes, and cheese whiz because you don’t have the shelf space, even if you had the money to buy all that.  I was just imagining trying to fit what some people keep in their pantry on a regular basis in the teeny kitchen I work in here- I would have to get a battle ax just to work my way to the stove.

But I’m STILL frustrated that stuff exists in the first place.  It makes me even more upset to think that it is roaming around poisoning the world over than it did when I first set out.  Because in the beginning I thought that Americans were SAFER from it because we had the freedom of choice to go buy something else.  But now I realize that they are way more susceptible to it because IT is the stronger force.  Here it just kind of slinks around and hopes that people believe they need it.  Here, the common way to eat is what the ‘food movements’ in the US are trying to do- eat the food from the ground you stand on.  Here, it is SO easy to do that and so hard to not.  At home, it is the complete opposite and that is very very sad.

So now, I am going to go roast some breadfruit and squeeze myself a nice big glass of orange juice simply because it’s cheap, easy, and I can.

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