May 19, 2010

When the ten-kilo bag of rice crossed the scanner, the young female cashier blinked and laughed: "That is a lot of rice. Are you planning something special, a party?"

It would not have occurred to me to buy rice -- or any other dry or frozen staple with reasonably long shelf life -- in any other way. Working out per-weight/volume unit costs, in my head long before some stores began to post them on the shelf, is second nature. From rice to single-serving ramen packages, staples are something always to have on hand. If they can be bought in bulk, the savings over smaller portions are significant. Even with basic ramen, buying a case can save as much as half the cost; while the per-weight unit cost of smaller packages of the exact same type of rice can be five or ten times that of the largest bags. Yet based on the cashier's reaction, this kind of purchase is unusual.

Part of it is clearly the way the cashier herself thinks of groceries: which is why I noted her gender and age group in this context. Although overall budget in the western world had, until quite recently, been the sole domain of men, household management skills for lower and middle class women (whether or not they also held a paying job) had always included a solid understanding of kitchen economics: part of a wife's value lay in how far she could stretch the "egg money". At the time I entered university, these kitchen skills were starting to be taught to young men as well -- along with teaching young women such traditional male skills as simple household repairs and changing a tire. Yet clearly this particular budgetary skill, at least as it applied to rice, was not relevant to this young cashier's world.

Part of it may be the location. This particular store served a community mostly of students and seniors, who tend to purchase food based on immediate needs. Many of the seniors in the area take their meals as part of meal plans at the community retirement home, whether or not they themselves live there; many of the students have similar meal plans at various cafeterias and fast-food outlets on campus. If one eats most of one's meals pre-prepared, it stands to reason that home cooking will be a matter of snacks and easy convenient things.

Among those who do cook regularly, it is possible that part of the reason may lie in the rice itself. For me, rice happens to come close to an everyday staple. For others, it may be potatoes, or pasta, or couscous. If rice is associated more with Chinese takeout than with household everyday staple, there is no reason to take up valuable apartment kitchen or pantry space with bulk rice that won't be used up for a year or even longer, or may no longer even be used at all.

It may be kitchen values themselves that have changed. Long habit, both personally learned and family heirloom, causes me to automatically divide groceries into categories based on staples, perishability, and luxuries/treats. Each of these categories is bought in a different pattern, albeit with enough flexibility in it to take advantage of store promotions and the occasional desire for an absolutely fresh fruit, vegetable, or herb (which is not purchased in the grocery store). In other words, I hardly ever purchase groceries directly around a single week's planned menu, let along a single meal: yet based on the food choices of those in front of me and behind me at the grocery stores, others frequently do.

Which leads me finally to security of food supply: which a fair number of us seem to take for granted, even for some of the most exotic things. For some time now, starvation has not truly been an issue for nearly all people in the western world. Yet much of the world does not take a secure food supply for granted. A few good years is not enough to erase the memories of lifetime and countless previous generations. In many cases, it is not that there is not enough food, it is "just" that the food does not reach those who need it most. Those of us in the west think ourselves somehow immune to this: yet food supply chains, even in the most developed countries, are fundamentally vulnerable, more so because so many of our staples are no longer local.

We depend so strongly on the immediate availability of anything we can imagine. Our very kitchen habits have changed to become utterly dependent on that availability. Strikes and other human-caused delays which are not intended to destroy can be met with negotiation or with force: but what will happen if our transportation network cannot adapt quickly enough to volcanoes, emergencies, fallout radiation, natural disasters, changing energy needs?

Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home