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Sweetness (Intro to Rachel’s personal Locavore challenge)

23 Aug

Sweetness! (Rachel looks into sweeteners as part of her personal Locavore Challenge: Introduction)

Rachel’s Locavore challenge: Investigating how some of our luxury/cheat items are produced and make it to our stores and plates, and seeing what alternatives we might choose for everyday use. I love to make things the “old-fashioned” way, and I love to research the path of foods to our plates, so this seems like a great personal challenge for me. The 250-mile diet challenge is less of the issue for me this month, though I’ll be working on that as much as I can. It’s less of a stretch, however, for someone who attempts that year-round. For me, the challenge is about highlighting what is available around me, and forgiving myself for not being able to be perfect at it, while simultaneously figuring out what steps I can take to have a positive impact on my local food/farm economy. My major cheats, I already know, will be nuts/seeds/exotic dried fruits and probably tea, some spices (though I’m going to use less since we have such fantastic local herbs and seasonings right now) and coffee.

When I have a local-ingredient question, I grab the oldest cookbook I can find. Usually that will give me a hint about what might be substituted for an expensive or exotic ingredient when it’s not a special occasion that necessitates use of such an ingredient. In my Rochester apartment, it’s a very quirky Mennonite cookbook (see here: Mennonite Community Cookbook) that seems really old, but which was apparently published in 1992.  It includes recipes from the Mennonite (and Amish, I believe) communities in the Eastern United States—Pennsylvania and Ohio especially.  [A bit of personal history: my family history is centered in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. My childhood long weekends were spent in the midst of some of the East’s most fertile farm land, waving at horse-drawn buggies clip-clopping down the highway in front of my Aunt Barbara’s house (an Amish family lived across the street), buying baked goods, cheeses and jams from the Mennonite, Amish and “Other” farmers at the Lancaster Central Market on weekends, eating my grandfather’s simple, elegant home-cooked foods. My grandfather grew up as a foster child on a farm in the Great Depression; even as a self-built wealthier man, his food never seemed to stray too far from these roots (which he’d pronounce “ruts”). There was always something from a jar on the table, even if it accompanied store-bought foods and shrimp cocktail.]

I feel that I can trust that whatever is in this cookbook is based in a tradition of non-excess, values similar to my own, and a locavore/eat-from-your-land mentality. Then there are strange convenience foods thrown into the mix, but I’ll overlook that since those are mostly dinner/casserole dishes that I wouldn’t use from this cookbook. The recipe proportions are generally off, and rely on the fact that you should know what looks and feels right, even with chemistry-based baking!  Basically, I treat this cookbook as cultural reference/interesting reading, though there are some winning cookie/cake recipes once I learned to trust my instinct on measurements.  On the question of sugar, it seems these traditional-esque recipes (the recipes are generations-back-passed-down sorts of recipes) still call for things that are luxury imports (spices, sugar). Sometimes molasses is used, which I’m learning could be made by farmers melting down sugar from their beets…but probably isn’t what was used even a few decades ago when this was published. Sometimes it’s honey or maple syrup, but generally it’s white and brown sugar, even corn syrup (though I have heard that this was considered the cheapest and least-quality sweetener, and you could base poverty on “not even being able to afford Karo syrup”). Obviously, this cookbook doesn’t go far enough back to a time when sugar was extremely limited, but my investigations are not even close to done!

Sugar is an interesting character on our pantry shelves: it’s a non-local luxury, but we treat it as a very necessary ingredient and accept its usage in our homes and in the foods we buy in restaurants and from store shelves. It’s in every jam, jelly and fruit-canning recipe I’ve ever seen (though with some pectins you can substitute honey or use much less sugar). In terms of the Locavore Challenge, we can at least start by trying to limit our consumption of sugar-using sweet treats, and we can certainly eliminate sweets (and even savory foods) from packages that use more refined/processed sweeteners. That’s usually my modus operandi, anyway.

In September, I’m challenging myself to at least look into this sugar question, see what the options are for alternatives (specifically for baked goods, as I find it’s pretty simple to do a tablespoon of honey or maple syrup in otherwise savory dishes), and of course reward myself with some baking. The experimental subjects will be: a cake, a cookie, granola and a confection/candy type thing. I have some lucky or unlucky friends and coworkers. Too bad my cat is too picky for any horrible results. Stay tuned for results of this and other installments of Rachel’s Highly (un-) Scientific Ingredient Experiments throughout September!

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