I see you. Yeah, you. You with the shaker of guar gum in one hand, a bottle of maltodextrin in the other. Put those down for a second and listen up. Sure they taste great, don’t they? Who doesn’t like a sodium benzoate spice rub on their entree, or a high fructose corn syrup stir fry sauce? While these chemicals are the staples of the home cook, I am here standing alone, as many visionaries once have, to posit that there is a better way.
Of course no one really cooks with these chemicals. Yet major food companies do. This is something we are starting to figure out as a society, but most people still don’t see an answer. Working at Trader Joe’s as I do, and in the liberal city in which I work, I get countless complaints about the contents of our products. “This has too much sodium,” or, “why does this have added sugar?” “Do you have a low-fat version of this?” or, “why don’t you have this in full-fat form?” Most of the complaints – no wait – all of the complaints are about products with “value added.” That is to say, prepared foods of varying degrees. Be it frozen entrees or marinara sauces, soups or cereals. The foods that some food scientist in a lab developed from what was once whole ingredients. Except they love the guar gum.
When I hear these complaints I am consistently left with one thought. If you don’t want junk in your food, make it yourself. It is very trendy these days to complain about HFCS in food, and to read ingredient lists looking for unpronounceable items. I myself do it. However, the vast majority of the products people are upset about are so simple to make from scratch. And the beauty of making it from scratch is you decide what goes into it!
When I first started cooking on my own, I relied a lot on prepared foods. I will be the first to admit their convenience. I always had a box or two of macaroni and cheese handy, or a frozen burrito ready to zap in a jam. As I have learned more and more how to cook, thanks to Mark Bittman (read his manifesto) and “How To Cook Everything Vegetarian,” I have come to learn just how easy it is to make most of the products from scratch that I once bought out of convenience. Nowadays, I never venture into the frozen aisle at work, apart from buying frozen fruit for smoothies. Yet it is by far the most popular aisle for Trader Joe’s (and where we make most of our money I’ll wager, as no product has more “value” added than a prepared entree). It is incredible the amount of people who clearly rely solely on our frozen meals. It is also scary. Most of the meals are so easy to make at home. And as for soups and sauces, those are so simple to make from scratch, and so much more delicious when you do.
Next time you run out of marinara sauce I challenge you to make your own instead of buying a jar. Find the whole ingredients, with nothing added. Those plum tomatoes, that handful of basil, the garlic to roast. You control the salt in your sauce. You refrain from reaching for the guar gum. It is all natural. And delicious. Make a big enough batch (and get some mason jars) and you can keep it for months. Freeze some of it and have it for later. And feel the sense of pride for creating something for yourself that you once passed off onto food scientists in a lab.
Three years ago, my New Year’s Resolution was to learn how to cook. It all started with Mr. Bittman’s book and a spark of an interest. Three years ago I ate a ton of macaroni and pizza rolls. Today I buy mostly produce and other whole ingredients, and make as much from scratch as possible. I never buy sauces or salsas. I have no use for the frozen entrees. But I still have work to do. However, this year, my resolution for everyone, is that we all learn how to cook. Buying whole ingredients, mostly produce, connects you to your food in a way that highly processed food that hides behind a generic label cannot. When we are connected to our food, we care about it. When we care, we find better choices for ourselves and for the planet. So, next time you run out of Prego, consider the impact of your options, and I hope you will find those bright red tomatoes in the produce section instead of the red jars in the middle of the store. That small change makes such a big difference.