Notes From the Urban/Rural Divide: More Thoughts On Ingredient Availability

Some people who live in cities enjoy something they may not be entirely aware of: access to a huge array of ingredients. I’m not just talking about spices specific to particular cuisines or regions, sometimes very small and isolated ones, at that. I’m also walking about pretty basic ingredients. In wealthy and middle class areas of the city, widely varied ingredients are highly accessible. People can find a variety of beans, types of flour, what have you. When they read a recipe and decide they want to try it, they can be fairly confident that they will be able to round up all the things it calls for.

There’s a presumption of ingredient availability that comes up in a lot of settings and can be really alienating, another reminder that you don’t belong or aren’t good enough when you can’t get those ingredients because you’re in a remote area or a region of the city with limited food availability. It’s pretty much the fastest way to make me stop reading a cooking site, to be blunt.

Many rural areas are food deserts. It can be difficult to access fresh food and it’s extremely hard to find anything other than the staples. White rice, yes, probably. Brown rice, maybe. Any other rice varieties? That’s a tossup, depending on your particular rural area. Need special flour to make Italian bread? You will need to order it from a boutique mill, because no store in your area will carry it. As for things like spices, well. If you’re lucky you can find a couple of basic spice mixes and cans or jars of curries that you might be able to doctor to approximate a flavour. Maybe. Again, depending on your rural area.

We have pretty good ingredient availability here, thanks to pressures from the middle class. I can get a lot of spices, for example, and Harvest has a good selection of pantry staples like various pastas, rices, legumes, etc. Their produce is not always the greatest, but I can often supplement in the summer months with selections from the farmers’ market, and hopefully from my own garden this year. But still, when I read recipes, I do have to think about ingredient availability, because there’s a chance I won’t be able to find a needed ingredient here.

Kefir lime, for example. You cannot get kefir lime leaves here. Harvest carried them very briefly and then stopped. So when I read a recipe that insists it is an absolute necessity, accept no substitutes, I raise an eyebrow. And often decide not to make it. Indeed, pretty much any time I encounter recipe snobbery, it leaves me unimpressed, because snobbery is often rooted in assumptions about ingredient availability. Of course anyone can get such and such an ingredient, it shouldn’t be a problem at all, what’s wrong with you?

When recipes don’t define ingredients or offer suggestions on substitutions, it can be a real turnoff. I’ve found, just for example, that I can get at kefir lime leaves with the zest of a regular ole lime. It might not be perfectly authentic, the flavour might be slightly off, but I still usually enjoy the end result. Other ingredients I don’t know how to replace because I’ve never encountered them. I don’t know what they are supposed to taste like and the recipe provides no guidance that might help me, no suggestion like ‘or you could use…’

I was thinking about this the other day when my father and I were discussing replacements for mascarpone (it’s a long story). Now, we can actually get mascarpone up here, although it tends to be very expensive. I was talking about making it, because I like making fresh cheeses, but he was playing with a substitution recipe involving cream cheese, sour cream, and heavy cream. I know some people who would turn up their noses at that and insist it is not authentic and that any recipe you make it with it would be, perforce, tainted and inedible. Those people presumably have access to mascarpone; either they can get it easily, or they can afford it even when it is expensive.

People like to claim that rural residents are lacking in sophistication. We have untutored, dull palates and are unworthy of many great food items. But it’s kind of hard to develop a palate, a sense of taste, when you really don’t have access to a lot of ingredients. And it’s really hard to try recipes that might be outside your familiarity and comfort zone when there’s a barrier right at the start in the form of insistence on an ingredient you cannot find for love or money, nor approximate, because you’re not quite sure what it is or how it is supposed to perform in the recipe.

You could say rural people are ‘unsophisticated’ for not being familiar with something, or you could admit that, you know, people eat a lot of food around the world. There’s a good chance that there are food items you haven’t heard of, wouldn’t know what to do with, and certainly couldn’t figure out how to substitute if a recipe assumed you could access them. Lacking of access to ingredients doesn’t make you subhuman, it just means that you can’t access ingredients. Even if you might want to, even if you have an interest in trying dishes that might not be very widely consumed in your area.

It’s kind of hard to branch out, culinarily speaking, if the price of admission is having access to ingredients that you can’t find or can’t afford.