There is no season allotted to worry, but in this summer of 2012, more than most other things, I’m starting to worry about food.
This is not to say that food worries will supplant the other ones.
I’m still concerned that Bain Capital is going to buy out Jefferson County and outsource the County Commission to Bangalore.
I fear that our governor, despite having an actual medical sheepskin on his wall, may buckle to pressure and join with his loony brethren in the Old Confederacy in refusing to expand Medicaid under the provisions of the Affordable Care Act.
I fret that Justin Bieber will blind somebody with his chrome-plated Fisker electric coupe.
However, it’s food that merits more than passing trepidation on the personal radar, at least in part because of the crimson drought map I noticed online last week. Despite a healthy dose of showers lately, Alabama is still arid, still waiting for some hurricane remnants to replenish the water table and cajole seedlings into vegetable overachievement.
Local farmers are bearing up as best they can, but when you talk to them at the weekend markets, many are sanguine about the situation. They know that this is part of the bargain they struck to become food growers, that their fortunes would be dependent upon the whims of weather.
Another disquieting headline affects the food situation, and that’s the one attached to an Associated Press story about the official poverty rate, which is on track to hit 15.2 percent or more, the highest numbers since 1965. Many factors affect the poverty rate, but Peter Edelman of the Georgetown Center on Poverty, Inequality and Public Policy has a pretty good bead on the situation: “The problem is that the tidal wave of low-wage jobs is dragging us down and the wage problem is not going away anytime soon.”
If you have little money, buying food is becoming a daunting enterprise. Joshua Malina, an actor you might remember from The West Wing or Sports Night, recently created a reality drama of his own by taking what’s called “the SNAP challenge.” Following the guidelines of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Malina lived on a food stamp budget for a week, which meant he had to figure out how to feed himself for seven days on just $31.50.
On Tumblr, Malina shared the complexity of his task. From giving little daily regard to his nutrition choices, the actor found himself paring his diet down to coffee and water (no Cokes), no organic foods (too expensive) and no meat (his preferred kosher cuts likewise too pricey).
Three days in, he was not feeling hunger pangs, but realized he was thinking quite a lot about how to avoid being hungry on his small store of victuals. While his family continued to eat their regular variety of meals, Malina found his own meal interludes repetitive, “more as hunger-killers than as something to be enjoyed.”
After seven days of living like 45 million Americans must, Malina confessed he was glad to have options. He looked forward to having desserts once again and more fruits and vegetables; “carefree eating,” he called it. Even as he praised the SNAP challenge for turning his thinking to matters of “food justice,” he acknowledged it was just an exercise. “I always had a vision of a finish line in my mind,” he wrote, “and I am very aware that others live this challenge with no sense of when if ever they may cross that line.”
Oddly enough, I am reminded of watermelon rind pickles.
The native cuisine of the South is in part grounded in poverty. Many of the dishes our region prizes today came to be because at one time that’s all there was to eat, and we can include grits, coffee with chicory, okra and cornbread in the lengthy list.
Along with making do, Southerners became expert at not wasting food. When one had to make do with butchering one hog to feed a family, no part of the hog went unused. Likewise, the lowly watermelon. Some innovative cook, rather than throw the rind away after the endocarp was consumed, determined that it was as worthy of being pickled as any cucumber or cauliflower.
In Blount County, where Daddy’s people hailed from, it used to be routine to save watermelon rinds until there was enough to cook up a batch for pickling and canning. The result was a sweet, spicy, golden pickle unlike any other, the taste of which to this day sends me off in Proustian reveries of childhood summer afternoons at my grandmother’s house.
Feeling adventurous, or just parsimonious, in this troubled summer? Make some watermelon rind pickles. I dare you.
Amass three pounds of thick watermelon rind; cut into one-inch cubes and trim off the outer green skin and any pink on the inside. Soak these in salt water overnight, drain them, then cover them in fresh water and cook till they’re tender. Then drain again.
In another pan, combine four cups of sugar and two of white vinegar and heat to boiling. Toss half a dozen three-inch cinnamon sticks plus two tablespoons each of whole allspice and whole cloves into a cheesecloth bag. Tie the bag and put it in the sugar water, then add your rind cubes and cook it with the lid off for 45 minutes or so.
When the rind is looking transparent, take out the spice bag. Scoop out the cubes and put them in three hot, sterilized pint jars, then cover them with your boiling sugarwater (which is more like syrup by now) practically to the top. Seal the jars like you’re supposed to.
Will this solve any domestic or world crises? It will not. But you will have three pints of great Southern pickles to enjoy, and surely that is one less thing to worry about.
Courtney Haden is a Weld columnist. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.