We were making dinner, a Thai curry. We’d gone to Harvest to pick up an assortment of vegetables and we were peacefully chopping things in the kitchen and making sure the rice was under control and listening to music and generally having a good time, until I opened the door of the fridge and pulled out a jar, and she tensed. I actually saw her freeze at the cutting board for a moment.
‘What’s what,’ she says, lightly.
‘Curry paste,’ I say.
‘From a jar? I never use curry paste from a jar, I always make it fresh.’
I blinked, for a moment, took a deep breath, and tried to think of the best way to approach this. She is not From Here, you know, and thus she doesn’t understand the layers of problems with the statement she has just made. I could talk about the fact that making curry paste is a pain in the ass, and not even an option for all people because of disability issues or lack of supplies. I could point out that, as a single person, I really dislike making things that don’t keep well for extended periods of time and require a lot of work to make, because I can’t just make a big batch and call it good. That, as a single person, I must make my meal planning practical for my needs and interests.
Or I could talk about the fact that the raw ingredients for curry paste are not available here. That I must drive to San Francisco for a lot of spices, or order them online, where I have limited control over freshness and quality unless I am willing to order and return repeatedly. Sure, I could cobble something together, but it wouldn’t taste right. So, I make curries with curry paste out of a jar. Yes. I do. I have no shame about it.
There’s a lot of snobbery about ingredient availability that always puzzles me on a lot of levels. I want to say that food snobs are just not aware of how they sound, and maybe don’t know about the issues that they are breezily ignoring with snide statements about how other people cook. But a lot of them clearly are aware of these issues, and think that shaming people will somehow address them, like, oh, I will suddenly run out and start making fresh curry paste for all my curries now that I have been sneered at for daring to use a jar. For being ‘inauthentic.’ For failing to toe the foodie line.
In fact, there are significant obstacles to ingredient availability that do not simply go away, no matter how hard people wish they would. Food deserts being perhaps the most obvious; some people cannot even access the raw ingredients they need to satisfy the specific demands of foodies. They do not have stores in their area that will meet their needs. Not even if they make ‘a little trip’ 15 minutes out of the way. No, they have to go hours out of their way, round trip, and that is a bit ridiculous, even setting aside issues like the need to work or care for children or manage disabilities or any number of other things. Some people cannot physically access the ingredients they might need, even if they very much want them.
Affordability, of course, is another significant barrier to access. It is often cheaper to buy packaged foods than the raw ingredients to make similar foods; it is cheaper for me to pick up a box of Kraft than it is to buy macaroni, milk, and cheese. Fresh vegetables and fruits, in particular, are extremely expensive, and yet foodies sneer at poor folks who eat packaged foods and fast food, as though they are just lazy and useless. Not trying to make ends meet and eating what they can afford, even if they are not thrilled to be eating it. Shaming people makes it a personal problem; ‘you don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables,’ instead of a social problem, ‘we need to make fruits and vegetables more affordable.’
Time, too. Time can be a factor when it comes to ingredient availability. Let’s say ingredients are located in reasonably nearby locations that you could easily visit. You may not have the time to work with them, to prepare them, to handle them correctly. You may not have the time to learn how to work with them. Again, even if you want to. We cannot overcome immovable obstacles; the earth will keep turning, it will keep orbiting the sun, the hours will keep progressing, and some of us have less time than others, for a variety of reasons. Especially for single cooks like myself, spending an hour or more on meal prep alone, before we’ve even turned the stove on, is just not an option most of the time. We don’t have the benefit of kitchen helpers, who not only cut down on time but also help us justify the significant time investment for a major meal. Would I like to spend two hours making dinner every night? Honestly, not really, although sometimes I do make a complex meal for the fun of it.
I see people who sneer at me for using tinned curry paste, and I know that they are ignorant, whether deliberately or not. I could take the time to patiently explain why they are full of crap and how they could try dedicating energies to making ingredients more accessible, instead of lecturing people for not meeting their standards, but, really, why bother? For every minute I’m spending trying to educate people, I should be out churning butter, right?