Considering the ways that San Juan has shaped my relationship to cooking.
So what would I value or desire? Town-supported community food gardens in every neighborhood. Individual plots for growing available in every neighborhood. Cooperative/collective shopping programs in every community to reduce in-person travel or shipping. A community kitchen with walk-in refrigerators and freezers in every neighborhood. More public transportation in general.
An example: Community meat lockers are already commonly used by hunters for their meat. And surplus is sold to the community. Sure, for some people it could smack of something communist or socialist, but I have never heard of a hunter getting spun up about it.)
You are asking so many great questions that I hope you continue to explore. I too am dependent on a vehicle for shopping, but for opposite reasons.
A few years ago we moved to a tiny remote town at the edge of the largest wilderness area in the Lower 48. There are many places equally remote like this, especially in the interior parts of the American northwest. (Electric vehicles are not going to be used here in my lifetime.) There are two small grocery stores, and one is reliably stocked with enough basic necessities so it can serve people in a 150-300 mile radius. However, the produce is nearly always quite old, the bulk bins untrustworthy (staleness not uncommon), and as everywhere where cars are required to shop, the food is predominantly boxed, canned, bottled or frozen. Even in town, most shopping must be done by car due to our climate (90°F+ in the summers, -20°F in the winters.)
I attempt to completely fill all our fruit, vegetable, fungi and egg requirements from our home and garden, and preserve and prep all sorts of ways, from wine and fermented foods, to blanched and frozen, or baked and frozen, and bottled, canned, and dried.
But managing wholesome food for three people takes way more hours than I'd like, more than people imagine... not to mention the time spent planning and driving three hours to get to the nearest best sources every few months to stock up, or the hours of online shopping to stock up on otherwise unobtainable items, like good flours, chocolate, asian ingredients, oils, peanut butter.
However... I am in this situation for two reasons, partly because I am stubborn and refuse to compromise, and partly because I think food should always be special, all the way down to the single best individual ingredient.
In the last couple years l've spent a lot of time researching how I can change our habits, both diet and eating, to reduce the time and effort required. I see no reason why I, we, can't change our desires and habits. There are many ways to eat well. I just have to expand my cultural or familial food patterns.
Your shopping experiences remind me of one important reason I love living and working in tiny Switzerland. Refrigeration is at a premium here; there aren't too many people with huge double-door refrigerators - ours are roughly 1/3 that size. There's also limited space (for the most part) to store a lot of dry ingredients. Fortunately, there are 2 major supermarkets within a short 3-minute walk...and a farmer's market every day of the week (except Sunday - that's still holy here). That means I don't need to stock up on many goods...but I do need to go shopping most days.
Thanks for another well-written piece - it's a pleasure to read your food writing...
This one hit home! Especially since today is our “Costco day” and we have arranged our schedules to get there and get back without sitting in traffic on the 22 during rush hour.
Another facet of the stocking up / clearing out cycle for me is hurricane prep. Our “daily salad” is a daily morning smoothie of frozen fruits and greens from our farm. In August we start eating down the freezer and perishable condiments which we don’t replace until about now, in October. So these are the months of austerity - no veg burgers, falafel, dumplings, smoothies easily pulled from the freezer. The risk of losing power and wasting food and the effort and money that went into them just isn’t worth it.
Vichy Catalan ... mmm. Discovered this in Spain over 25 years ago, and whenever I see a shop that carries it, I buy a few, and then enjoy the memories of our travel. It also reminds me of the daily shopping habits in Spain, with all the specialty markets (produce, seafood, meats, etc), and I wonder with the advent of larger grocery stores there (one stop shop), will it change the traditional way of life? I just purchased a rolling shopping cart to incorporate walking to the grocery store a few times per week instead of driving a short distance and loading up the car, a convenience, but not being in the moment.
As someone who studied food systems in college and is now doing an urban planning MA focused on public transportation (and the effects of car-centric planning), this article hit all the marks for me.
This part was so salient for me - “Infrastructure that doesn’t support a spontaneous ability to procure fresh food without a car or walkable access, an economy that doesn’t provide a proper salary or time for fresh food preparation—these are infrastructures and economies that support fast food.
How our cities, our towns, our nations determine the ways in which we procure food is fascinating. So many decisions are made for us.”
My husband and I are both students again and live in a little graduate studio with a fridge that is essentially the size of a wine cooler (and a small shelf of a freezer, if you can even call it that). As a couple that likes to cook at home, we’ve had to adjust quite a bit and plan our meals strategically to ensure we can actually fit our ingredients in the fridge while also cooking up everything we buy so that we don’t waste it (for the sake of the environment as well as our tight food budget - oh to be a student again!).
We are very lucky to live in London and have a handful of grocery stores around us so that we can walk to get the items we need but we know that’s not the case in areas that have been excluded from the local food system.
Thank you for another great article! 👏🏼
Wanted to write you, but lost the comment in my clumsily navigating from email to substack, and then looking for an article. There's so much abundance and infuriating scarcity and corruption in our bay area food system.
Also, I have an ingredient hoarding problem. This quart of honey fermented figs, where the figs are long past good--but maybe the liquid is good? I should just keep staring at it for a few more years.
Helen Hester and Nick Srnicek’s After Work (perhaps through a recommendation of yours?) got me thinking about my kitchen and pantry more historically and in new ways.
I daydream about my grocery shopping and stocking up becoming more of a collective/community activity. I’ve been trying to coordinate a small bulk buying club to purchase wholesale from Frontier Coop and a couple regional farms/suppliers. But I’m not sure it actually makes sense where I live, in a small, dense, wealthy city with lots of great (if expensive) food options. It’s hard to coordinate the logistics or involve anyone beyond my immediate circle of friends... and I can’t really use SNAP/WIC benefits for such purchases either.
Every essay you write is like a favorite college class I look forward to attending: it leaves me with a fresh perspective and challenges past beliefs. And reading your book often feels like the equivalent of a college education!
Thank you for resurfacing that Jumana Manna article -- wow! I wrote a piece for my co-op's newsletter about Palestinian olive oil a few years ago, and have been thinking about the thousands year-old olive trees (and, centrally, the people who tend to them) in my grieving for the ongoing violence. That's just to say that I appreciate the little bit of context around wild foods and how they have been policed, for the reminder of the particular violence of separating people from their home-lands, and just wish I could watch the whole film.
Thanks always for your writing, and the people and ideas it teaches me about!
Another great post! Re planning and food systems, there's also an online book (free!) called Integrating Food into Urban Planning ed. by Yves Cabannes and Cecilia Maroocchino: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/10061454/1/Integrating-Food-into-Urban-Planning.pdf
I think I saw that they put out a call for articles around a year ago for an updated version but I'm not sure of the status.
I still think it’s so wild you went to Calgary. Xo
I loved this. I find it so satisfying reading about other people who find methodically working through everything in the fridge etc until it's empty and time to start over on of the most peaceful yet thrilling feelings in life. So much more to have a think about from this piece over the next few days - as always, my mind is gratefully poked and prodded in all sorts of directions by your writing - but, for now, I want to celebrate one of the most resonant and quotable things you've maybe ever said:
"...a specialty grocer where I tend to be a bit absurd...".
Love it so much, and sames.