When I finish my coffee and our little girl wakes up so we can have breakfast together, I'll drive out to the farm and help my father-in-law harvest chickens. In the meantime, this morning's text comes from Merle Haggard, and is inspired by my trip down the baking isle of the local Kroger yesterday.

I wish Coke was still cola and a joint was a bad place to be.
It was back before Nixon lied to us all on TV.
Before Microwave ovens when a girl could still cook, and still would.
Is the best of the free life behind us now and are the good times really over for good?


And my question is this: Why is it now possible to buy flour only in five-pound bags?

I suppose I should apologize for the sexism of Mr. Haggard's lyrics, but (having interviewed him a couple times in a previous life) I'm pretty sure he wouldn't, and that misses the point I'm ambling toward anyhow.

A decade or so back I spent a year in Los Angeles. Purgatory, or worse. The people I worked with thought I was weird because I'd brought a few hand tools with me, and was more or less capable of using them. One friend, who now works for the Cooking Network, told me that cooking at home was a waste of life.

I'm not a chef, and I'm not going to take this particular career time-out to go to culinary school, but I like to cook, and I care about what I'm eating.

And one of the things that struck me as odd when I went shopping in Los Angeles was that one could only buy flour in five-pound bags. Now...if you bake (and I'm really a pancake and quick breads guy; my wife is the yeast person in our house), five pounds doesn't last long. And then there was the other problem: there are flours other than white and the token bag of whole wheat that one might wish to use, now and again.

I suppose it was silly of me to want buckwheat in Los Angeles, but I happen to like buckwheat pancakes, though I've no idea how a kid from the suburbs of Seattle developed that appetite. (Now, living in the south, my daughter won't touch the stuff. Go figure.) But, y'know, rye flour? Graham flour? Anything?

Nothing.

Finally I was reduced to going to a health food store filled with some of the least healthy people I've ever seen (it was near CBS studios, which might explain some of that). Which is fine. And then I figured out that if I drove home through South Central, and stopped at the working class grocery store, they still had flour in ten-pound sacks, and sometimes more.

Fast forward, life changes, and I end up in eastern Kentucky. Where people can still cook (and still do), and still grow some of their own food, even if only by reflex and tradition (though the present economy has made them grateful for the habit, and me grateful for the knowledge they're willing to share).

The local Kroger just expanded, with the bonus that there's more ethnic food on the shelves, at least temporarily. (In passing: who the hell thought their new logo was a good idea, and how were they related to the chairman of the board?) So I was surprised to find over the weekend that I was back in LA, that there was nothing on the shelf but five-pound bags of white flour, a token section of King Arthur whole wheat, and the usual assortment of cornmeal (which was a rare object in LA).

I assume that Kroger knows what it's doing, what with its high-tech tracking device which monitors everything my household purchases. I assume that it shelves what it believes it can sell. I suspect that if I went to one of the more down-scale supermarkets in town I might find at least white flour in something like bulk.

And the truth is that we are, to some extent, part of this theoretical problem, as we drive an hour west to a small mill in Midway, Kentucky (Weisenberger's) and buy our flour in 25-pound bags. And we stock up for several friends who also bake. So we're not helping Kroger make good consumer decisions, I suppose.

But the point, that sharp sticky thing I'm ambling toward before I pour my second cup of coffee, is this: I live in a poor, rural setting (leavened by a small university). And the wisdom of the marketeers says that the people around me don't cook. Bake. Don't need flour often enough to justify buying it more than five pounds at a time.

I know this is a small thing. Really I do. But it troubles me. It troubles me because even restaurants don't bake from scratch any more. It troubles me because having the time and inclination to cook is now, apparently, an affectation of the middle class. It troubles me because obesity is a huge issue in Appalachia (sorry, that's an unintended pun, but I'm typing too fast to go back and recast the phrase), and the people who aren't cooking are in line at all the fast food joints in town.

It troubles me because it's yet another reminder of how disengaged much of the population is from the basic skills which were once thought to be necessary for survival. And it trouble me because the way I read the tea leaves, we'd best all be accumulating those skills, and in a hurry.

(Originally drafted for my occasional anonymous posts on dailykos.com.)

Views: 57

Tags: alden, cooking, haggard, merle, rant

Comment by Adam Sheets on July 20, 2010 at 11:06am
Great post and you raise some great points. As you mentioned obesity is a big problem in Appalachia and it troubles me that I know people who go to restaurants almost every evening. Fast food restaurants mostly. That's all there is around here really, other than a few places with a buffet which, as you can surmise, is no healthier. As for me, give me a home-cooked meal any day. I can even cook it myself and enjoy doing so from time to time. But it's just another thing that's been lost (or cut down) due to the technological age we live in.
Comment by Easy Ed on July 20, 2010 at 11:26am
Krogers...which is Ralph's out here in California and Fred Meyer in Seattle and whatever other couple of dozen names that they trade under...is probably not the topic. Nor is flour.

But a few years ago in southern California we had the "great supermarket strike" that lasted for almost five months and which put picket lines in front of all the major chains. Led by Krogers/Ralphs, these chains all banded together to drive the unions out by refusing to bargain individually and eventually hiring non-union replacements. And Ralphs was caught rehiring locked out union strikers under fictitious names which caused them to be indicted and convicted to the tune of $70 million in fines. The company also admitted that it violated federal laws regarding identity fraud, conspiracy, pension reporting and record keeping for the Social Security Administration and the Internal Revenue Service. Nice.

During this heated period, businesses like Trader Joe's, Costco, Henry's, Barron's and many small independent retailers saw a huge increase in sales and after the strike was over many consumers changed their buying habits forever. For myself, the result is that if I want flour, I can buy it in bulk at the supermarket I shop at. So whether one ounce or a hundred pounds...whatever I need, I can get. And they have buckwheat, cornmeal, rye, soy or whatever. And fresh produce from local growers. Etc.

In the documentary Food Inc., they keep coming back to an Iowa cornfield which they cast as the Darth Vader of modern food production and retailing. If you haven't seen it, it's worth finding and watching as it speaks to your points of marketing, obesity, selection and choices.
Comment by Patrick Grant on July 20, 2010 at 12:16pm
Isn't it an option to buy more than 1 sack of flour at a time, regardless of the size?
Comment by kevin buchanan on July 20, 2010 at 1:08pm
5lbs o flour's not enuf to do diddly with..raise hell..if they try that stunt around here there'd be a lot o noise raised..
Comment by hyperbolium.com on July 20, 2010 at 7:09pm
Next time you're in Los Angeles, try Whole Foods Market. Most of their stores have a variety of flours.
Comment by Grant Alden on July 21, 2010 at 3:36am
Next time I'm in LA? It's been ten years (since the Victoria Williams/Mark Olson cover story, which means, no, it's been twelve years), and I can't imagine I'll be back. Some people I really like live there, but...
Comment by June Star on July 21, 2010 at 4:47am
"It troubles me because it's yet another reminder of how disengaged much of the population is from the basic skills which were once thought to be necessary for survival. And it trouble me because the way I read the tea leaves, we'd best all be accumulating those skills, and in a hurry."

i recently finished up a successful fifteen year teaching career in Maryland and have to say that this concern, quoted above... will only be resolved when our non-renewable fuel sources run dry... I don't want to be overly bleak... but there is that survival of the fittest notion that will rear its exacting head and bare some awfully pointy teeth. both adults and teenagers increasingly nap when they should be reading the instruction manuals for how to get by. the most alarming of these attitudes comes back to entitlement and idolatry. seems like a lot of folks project a sense of "you owe me" without done anything to merit such expectations... on top of that... parent idolatry of their children... here's a funny article from the onion about that... http://www.theonion.com/articles/miracle-of-birth-occurs-for-83-bil... what's funny to me is that there are some parents that believe their children are the most precious individuals on the planet and so therefore, deserve every advantage available. This point is not really a discouraging attitude... I would want my children to be successful and take advantage of opportunities... this is not the problem. The issue with this attitude is that it transforms into problems with accountability. You know, "Not my kid! He'd never lie to me." Now that a whole generation has been raised to believe that they are never wrong and that they have the right to touch and break anything they see without being held accountable for it, they're probably going to be less likely to fend for themselves and expect someone else to meet their needs.

when the fuel runs out and we have to adjust our lifestyles... all of these self aggrandizing attitudes will inevitably have to change...or else. Every member of any culture that has been confronted with massive social, political, and/or natural has had to adapt, leave, or die, 0r perhaps become dependent on the stronger willed, better educated, more manipulative members.

wow, I just kept going on...

sorry for the ramble,

grimm
Comment by SoCalBert on July 28, 2010 at 2:36pm
I find it hard to believe the whole not-knowing-how-to-cook thing is not trending the other way, at least for now. Though maybe I cannot speak for the lower income sector. But the proliferation of cooking and info info in the media (online, tv, print) must be reflecting something. But again I can't speak for the poor because I often have the realization, after cooking a meal for two, that I could have had it prepared by a professional and served to me for only a few more bucks.

For what its worth, I think L.A. has changed for the better in the past ten years. Or maybe I'm just better at ignoring the intolerable elements.
Comment by Easy Ed on July 28, 2010 at 3:30pm
I actually think that people enjoy watching other people cook because it's something they no longer do themselves. Instead of creating a new wave of chefs, it serves it's purpose of driving people off their couches and out to the restaurants. I often justify going out to lunch or dinner as it only costing a little bit more, but really, that's not true. There's gas, possibly parking, travel time, tips and usually the quality is not all that great.

Although I no longer live in the heart of the city but a couple hours away, my two cents is that LA is neither better nor worse. It just is. I know for many people it's sort of cool to take a swipe at the place based on the typical stereotypes, but I think by and large it's pretty ok. There are intolerable elements wherever you are.
Comment by Grant Alden on July 28, 2010 at 8:00pm
My experience of LA...Ed...wrong place at the wrong time, I suppose. I suspect had I worked elsewhere with different people, in a different industry...maybe. I liked driving there, though.

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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.