Like most mothers, I spend a good deal of time preparing meals for my family. Most mornings find me in the kitchen, making lunches as the sky lightens from deep blue to pink, and so on to sweet orange. Brilliant shafts of sunlight are spilling through the back door by the time I pack the lunchboxes into my kids’ backpacks. Honestly, I don’t always love this part of my parenting job description. While I want my kids to eat healthy meals, meeting this inexorable human requirement for sustenance can be grindingly tedious. So it comes as a welcome break in the routine when I travel for work, as I did to Nepal last month.
When I travel to developing countries, however, I am always reminded that I actually spend very little time in the kitchen compared to women worldwide. Surveys in a wide range of countries have shown that women provide 85 – 90 percent of the time spent on household food preparation.According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, American women in my demographic spend just over 60 minutes on food prep and just over 30 minutes on cooking every day. Indian women, by contrast, average 191 minutes, while Mexican women spend 373 minutes and Turkish women spend 377 minutes on unpaid domestic work like food preparation and cooking. When you add to this the time spent gathering fuel and fetching water, the numbers shoot up even more – up to 5 hours in some African countries. So I really have nothing to complain about.
The other thing that always strikes me when I return home to the United States is how much food we waste in this country. According to a recent study, Americans throw away forty percent – nearly half – of their food every year, waste worth roughly $165 billion annually. In other words, the average American family of four ends up throwing away an equivalent of up to $2,275 annually in food. It’s hard not to feel how wrong that is when you have just returned from interviewing young people who only get one meal a day; a mother who hasn’t eaten for 36 hours because she gave her refugee camp rations to her children. And hunger remains a problem right here in our own country. If we reduced the losses in the U.S. food supply by just 15 percent, according to the National Resources Defense Council, we would save enough to feed 25 million Americans annually.
This American habit of wasting food is of relatively recent acquisition – there has been a 50 percent jump in U.S. food waste since the 1970s. So this is not a problem created by my Grandma Edna’s generation, who survived the Great Depression by saving and using every bit of food they could. (She even saved the bacon drippings, using them to make her Cornflake Cookies.) This is a problem for which MY generation, those of us who grew up in the 70s and 80s, must acknowledge some responsibility.
There are some good tips out there for reducing food waste in your home: making (and keeping to) a shopping list, buying only the amount you need, freezing things before they go bad (bread, cheese, avocados, bananas), composting, using up leftovers. I do these things, but my major focus is on the leftovers. I make chili with the leftovers from Taco Night, enchiladas with leftover chicken. There’s a kind of analytical beauty to finding a repurposing solution, the same feeling you get from fitting all the pieces into a puzzle. But mostly I want to model for my kids the economy, the efficiency, the responsibility to avoid wasting food when so many don’t have enough. What I want my children to understand is that the small personal choices they make, both to act and NOT to act in certain ways, can have an impact on others. Small acts of personal economy are, in fact, a way of showing that you care about the world and the other people in it.
The task of using up leftovers is infinitely easier during Soup Season. The sad, wilted veggies on the bottom of the crisper meet old parmesan cheese rinds in Minestrone Soup. Leftover mashed potatoes are transformed into Potato-Cheese Soup (or, equally delicious, Potato Soup with Pesto). Corn is scraped off the cob for Southwestern Corn Chowder. The bottom-of-the-bag salad spinach adds a beautiful green tint to Winter Vegetable Soup (my family’s favorite).
So when I returned from Nepal last week to find that the evenings had turned chilly and, consequently, that the kitchen counter was piled high with end-of-summer tomatoes, I knew exactly what I had to do.
Welcome Soup Season with Tomato Basil Soup and Grilled Cheese Sandwiches!
Here’s my recipe so you can welcome Soup Season, too. Bon appetit!
Tomato Basil Soup
1/4 cup olive oil
3 medium onions (about 3 cups chopped)
3-4 garlic cloves, chopped or pressed
1/2 cup fresh basil, chopped + up to another 1/2 cup chopped for serving
1/2 tsp salt and freshly ground pepper
3 lbs fresh tomatoes, chopped (including skins and seeds) (can also use canned tomatoes -2 28 oz cans whole tomatoes in juice, cut up)
32 oz container of chicken or vegetable broth
In soup pot, saute onions in oil until golden. Add garlic, basil, salt and bay leaf. Saute another 2-3 minutes. Take out bay leaf and add tomatoes and broth. (If I have any leftover tomato paste, I add a couple of tablespoons here; if I have leftover tomato sauce, I add up to a cup of it, too.) Bring to a boil and cook for 10-20 minutes (use the shorter time if you want the tomato taste to be more fresh.) Adjust seasoning (I don’t use much salt, so you may want to add more.) Let cool for a few minutes and then puree the soup with an immersion blender or in batches in a regular blender. When soup is smooth, add additional chopped basil. Serve hot or cold.
Roasted Tomato Basil Soup: Toss the tomatoes, onions and garlic with olive oil and roast at 400 degrees for 40 minutes. Follow the rest of the recipe.
Pasta: On this particular night, I added leftover cheese tortellini to the soup but sometimes I add 1/2 to 1 cup of cooked elbow macaroni.
Cream: If you like your tomato soup creamy, it works to substitute out one cup of broth for milk or cream. Add cream after pureeing.
Cheese: I have added each of the following depending on what I am trying to use up (but not at the same time): 1 cup crumbled feta, 1 cup shredded parmesan, 4 oz fresh chevre (goat cheese)
Grilled cheese sandwiches: My grilled cheese depends entirely on what I have on hand. I’ve made delicious open-faced sandwiches with artisan bread and aged gouda, but on this night we had cheddar on whole-wheat bread. Until the cheddar ran out and I switched to provolone – which I actually thought tasted better.
I first heard about “The Sharing Table” when my son came home from kindergarten and exclaimed, “No snack for me today! I had three hot dogs – plus my home lunch.” I pictured the Oscar Wienermobile pulling up at his school, tossing hot dogs like Mardi Gras beads. “Where did you get three hot dogs?” “The Sharing Table, of course.”
The concept is simple. If there is something in your school lunch that you don’t like, you leave it on the table. If there is something in the school lunch that you want more of, or – if you are like my children – you would like to supplement to your home lunch, well, you can just help yourself. I couldn’t find any official Minneapolis Public Schools food policy, so I quizzed the kids.
Me: “So, how did you find out about The Sharing Table?”
- Oldest son (age 12): “Duh! It is right next to the Allergy Aware Table. You can’t miss it.” (This one has a peanut allergy.)
- Youngest son (age 9): “I didn’t really know about it, but then I think the Lunchroom Teacher told us at some point. The Lunchroom Teacher is kind of mean. If you forget your lunch, you go to The Sharing Table.”
- Daughter (age 6 1/2): “It’s right there! Kids put their grapes there. I like it when I can get the ‘mandrigan’ oranges. Sometimes I take something and put it in my lunchbox for a snack later.”
All three agreed that the only real rules were that the items on the Sharing Table had to be from the school lunch, i.e. pre-packaged. Sometimes the pre-packaged school lunches bum me out. When I was growing up in Louisiana, the lunches were not pre-packaged. They were made in the cafeteria kitchen by large African-American women who always seemed to be stirring giant stainless steel pots and having a grand old time. The East Baton Rouge Parish schools offered up jambalaya, shrimp creole, crawfish etouffee, cornbread, buttery rolls, yams, succotash, John Marzetti casserole, iced spice cake – for only 90 cents a lunch. My high school cafeteria had both a “hot lunch” side and a gumbo/salad bar/milkshake side.
Those East Baton Rouge Parish school lunches were some of the best in the world. The melamine compartment lunch trays (which I recall as being pastel green, orange, yellow, and blue) came back to the kitchen clean as a whistle – except when greens were served. Nobody EVER touched the greens. The greens remained on the trays in the perfect ice cream scooper-formed mounds in which they were served. The rumor was that the greens were actually grass and, in fact, there was some circumstantial evidence to support the hypothesis. Not only did they look exactly like grass, but I myself observed over years – at Magnolia Woods Elementary, at Wildwood Elementary, at Glasgow Middle Magnet – that greens were always on the menu THE DAY AFTER the janitors mowed. At Baton Rouge Magnet High, where students came from all over the parish, we did an informal survey and discovered that this was happening in all the school cafeterias. Harbinger of the locovore movement? Or just coincidence? You be the judge. All I know is that nobody EVER touched the greens.
One greens day when I was a sophomore in high school, I brought my lunch tray back to the kitchen. My tray was clean, except for the greens. On the conveyor belt, there was a long line of trays with ice cream scoop mounds of greens waiting to be dumped. The cafeteria lady who was spraying down the trays looked me in the eye and said,
“Y’all is wasting perfectly good greens. Y’all must not know what it’s like not having enough to eat.”
Y’all, in case you don’t know, can be used both in the singular as well as the plural. I understood exactly what she was saying that day – she meant both. The only possible response to this was, “Yes, ma’am.”
By which I meant, “I’m sorry.”
Last year 65% of kids in grades K-8 qualified for free and reduced lunch. I think The Sharing Table is a fine way to make sure that all of these kids get enough to eat. At my kids’ schools they also have R.O.T., where the kids have to sort the remains of their lunches into recycling, organics, and trash. I think that’s a good idea, too.
This Thanksgiving I am thankful for the many blessings in my life: for my family, my health, the opportunity to do good work. I rediscovered my love of writing this year and I’m grateful for that, too. I’m thankful to that long-ago Baton Rouge High School lunchlady. And I’m also thankful for The Sharing Table. My children are learning lessons at school that are not in any curriculum. They are learning a lifestyle of avoiding waste and paying attention to what happens to their garbage. They are learning, by giving and taking equally, that if you have more than you need, you should share it. If you need more than you have, you can take it without questions or shame. It’s not political, it’s just about being together in a community. Today I am thankful that I am not alone in raising these children to be good citizens of their community.
Throwdown* Crawfish Etouffe
1 lb. crawfish tail meat (can also use shrimp or catfish)
2-3 teaspoons Tony Cacherie’s Creole seasoning (if you don’t have that, use 2 tsp. salt, 2 tsp. garlic powder and 1/2 tsp. cayenne)
1/2 stick of butter
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
2 bunches scallions (green onions), chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 can Rotel Tomatoes (diced tomatoes with green chiles)
1 can Campell’s Cream of Mushroom soup (the TRUE secret of Cajun cooking!)
Mix seasoning with crawfish and put in refrigerator for 30 minutes.
Over medium-high heat, melt the butter in a heavy pot. Add the chopped onions, celery and garlic and saute until the yellow onion is translucent. Add the seasoned crawfish and mix real good. After about a minue, add the can of soup (no water) and stir. Then add the Rotel tomatoes and mix. Lower the heat, cover the pot, and cook the rice. Stir the etoufee often and simmer over low heat for 20 minutes. Season to taste with more Tony’s.
*The lazy version
JOHN MARZETTI CASSEROLE
Not my recipe, but I ate a whole lot of it and make it for my family now. I do wonder how a dish from Ohio became such a mainstay on the EBRP public school lunch menu. Here is the source for this version of the recipe.
3 tbsp. olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
¾ lb. mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
2 lbs. lean ground beef
3 ½ cups tomato sauce
1 ½ lbs. cheddar cheese, shredded
1 lb. elbow macaroni, cooked and drained
In skillet, saute onion in oil until limp, about 3 minutes. Add mushrooms and fry until juices are released, about 5 minutes. Add beef and cook, stirring, breaking up clumps, until no longer red. Remove from heat and mix in tomato sauce and all but 1 cup of cheese. Transfer to greased 9- by 13-inch baking dish and add macaroni. Toss gently to mix. Scatter remaining cheese on top. Bake, uncovered, in 350-degree oven until browned and bubbling (35 to 40 minutes). Serves 10 to 12.