• Ali Tadlaoui

I recalled watching "Babette's Feast" (1988) when I was initially brainstorming topics for the Talk to Me About Food podcast. I made a note to view it again because I remember the movie glorifying the rituals of a feast; Babette composing her haute cuisine menu, the sourcing of the ingredients, the intricate preparation of the meal, and her guests savoring each course but also devouring the spirit of the occasion. I found the film streaming somewhere, and watched it. The movie and food are worth talking about.


Eater.com thinks so too. "Babette's Feast" featured in an article this week entitled "A Movie-able Feast: Criterion Channel Has a Smorgasbord of Great Food Movies Right Now." Esra Erol touches on this Danish movie as well as "Tampopo" (a memorable Japanese film that I have seen as well) and five other food-centered classics I've not heard of but now want to indulge in. Criterion Channel may be the best place to find these films, and a thousand other classics, for a $99 annual subscription.

If you haven't seen the movie, "Babette's Feast" centers on Babette, a once chef de cuisine at the most famous restaurant in nineteenth-century Paris, and two spinster sisters in a tiny, God-fearing village in rural Denmark, who are thrown together when Babette, fleeing from France, knocks on their door in a storm. The film culminates in a cathartic, seven-course meal of sea turtle soup, caviar on blinis, whole, fried quail, beef head stew, endive salad, fine cheeses, exotic fruit, and a soufflé, all served with bottles of exquisite wines. You can almost feel the body heat of the guests in their starched finest, crowded in a candlelit dining room, and smell their woozy breath coming through the screen. The effect is satiation.


We haven't exactly been preparing feasts for the past nine weeks, but we have been putting more thought and effort into the process of making family meals. There's a changing weekly dinner menu which incorporates family favorites, something new, and a dish or meal that requires a bit more effort. Mostly we have been improvising at lunch by cobbling together familiar sandwiches or creating a mash-up of leftovers, but we have spontaneously made something fresh on occasion. A tangy three-bean salad, lentil soup, or tortilla de patatas. Food shopping has been something of an adventure. Not the trek that brought Babette her provisions all the way from France, but navigating the aisles, trying to keep the proper distance with other shoppers also peering over their masks, searching for ingredients we haven't used or bought from that store has kept us on our toes.


Are we taking more pleasure out of eating at home? I think so. We're putting more into the process so we are getting more out of it too. "Babette's Feast" reminds me that there's even more to to get out of this daily ritual. Feeding ourselves and others easily descends into a discombobulated chore, especially during the school and work week. It can be a labor of love. Babette spent every last penny of her life-changing lottery winnings on creating this once-in-a-lifetime feast as a grand gesture of gratitude to foreign strangers who took her in. But also to revel in watching, sensing their pleasure, a communal pleasure of feasting on what she knew only a special chef could create. What generosity of spirit.

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You don't have to see sales figures for packaged food sales to know that they are way up in the last couple of months. A jaunt down food store center store aisles in particular makes it clear that we are preparing a lot more meals at home. The pasta, bottled water, canned and baking goods sections (among others) have been drawn down because we stockpiled during the first weeks of the pandemic, but we consumers are washing, chopping, slicing, cooking, baking, and grilling more too.


IRI Worldwide, which tracks sales of consumer goods, recently reported that raw potato sales in April were up 50% over last year, and other vegetables used in scratch cooking, like onions and tomatoes, are also way up, as are sales of center-of-the-plate foods like meat, poultry, eggs, and seafood. We're buying more of everything, perishable and not. Is a food revolution afoot? A renaissance of scratch cooking?


McCormick CEO, Lawrence Kurzius, waxes optimistic about the prospects of consumers continuing to buy more of the scratch cooking products his company sells. In a CNBC.com article this week he noted that consumers in China are continuing to buy spices and other meal prep ingredients at a higher rate even as China moves past the worst of the pandemic.


Making your own food can be cheaper than buying food made by someone else. This is always a big benefit and might continue to keep people at the cutting board and stove as long as budgets are strained by a slow recovery from the pandemic, and people have the time to make their own food.


Making your own food for more of your meals can be better for your health too, if you're choosing more whole foods, eating fresh, or even frozen raw ingredients, and measuring the amount of fats, salt, and sugar you're using to prepare your food. According to an IRI webinar entitled, "Produce During COVID-19," Americans are loading up on oranges and berries more than any other fruit. Apparently, we are trying to boost our immune systems in the short term.


Even though it has been a bit taxing to put together a menu every week, and pull together meal after meal, our family has taken even more pleasure in the art and science of cooking and baking. I've heard similar stories from our community and from kitchens all over the country. We're turning to the back pages of our recipe binders to find new ideas. Spending more time discovering new recipes online. Co-creating with the kids, and letting them also explore the contours of the kitchen space on their own. Many of us are making memories we would not have otherwise. "No, you don't use a can opener on a jar..."

I've read that a fair number of adults (likely younger adults) are tackling scratch cooking for the first time. First-timers who might as ask, as Mr. Kurzius noted in his interview, "What is a teaspoon?" Marketers are jumping in to fill the knowledge gap. With enough success and encouragement, those of us learning these new skills might enjoy it enough to make the time to make our own food even when the inside of a restaurant becomes a safe space again.


I'm not sure we're seeing a "make from scratch" renaissance, though. The thing is, we haven't given up on convenience. We're ordering lots of take-out while we're sheltered in. If it's possible, I believe I've seen more pizza delivery ads in the last eight weeks than around our most cherished sporting events. We're having a record number of prepared meals delivered, and buying lots from supermarkets too. The long-term trend is to let others do the meal preparation for us. You can see this in the list of the 10 best-selling new food items in 2018 (IRI 2019 New Products Pacesetters report). Six of the ten were designed for single use and/or on-the-go occasions, like Duncan Hines Perfect Size for 1, Gatorade Flow, Lay's Poppables, and RXBAR.


We might be living through an inflection point in where and how we buy food, but I'm not sure that a significant number of us will continue to make meals from scratch when we are no longer confined to our own four walls.


Online shopping for groceries is up and projected to grow by 40% this year according to Coresight Research. I can believe that the convenience and safety of contactless shopping will grow in its appeal. I can also see how there could be a marked jump in the number of us tapping into local and hyperlocal food sources to minimize the risk of contamination from food traveling thousands of miles, and through many touch points. The food store shopping environment is likely going to feel more hygienic (and perhaps also more sterile emotionally too...).


But will what we eat, and how it's prepared change that much when we go back to working and having to cope with all the demands on our time and effort? The macro trends that have been driving us towards convenience are not likely to relent. If anything, our lives might become even busier and we might feel more stretched as we negotiate a new environment outside our sheltering place; an environment of new public health protocols that lead to longer lines, waiting times, and time-consuming, stress-producing workarounds. I think it will be just as easy, or easier to let someone else worry about getting food on the table away from home AND at home.


Are we going to reap the health benefits of making meals from scratch to stay strong in the face of the next waves of viral threats? The steady growth of functional foods - foods with specific health benefits - makes me think that many of us will continue to gravitate to targeted, and quicker fixes to boost the immune system. A beverage or yogurt, instead of a steady diet of homemade, mostly plant-based meals. Or, a next-generation supplement. A food vaccine of sorts.

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  • Ali Tadlaoui

I listened to a brief NPR interview with Ralph Nader today, Mother's Day, about his just released cookbook, "The Ralph Nader and Family Cookbook: Classic Recipes from Lebanon and Beyond." The food sounds good all the way around, and the recipes might allow you to come close to approximating the food and kitchen ambience Mr. Nader's mother apparently enthralled her kids with. I'm not sure our collective bookshelves need another Mediterranean cookbook, even one specific to Lebanese cuisine, but it's the story, the breadth and/or depth of emotion enlivening the recipes that makes a cookbook engaging and worth putting on the bookshelf. And Ralph Nader, an eighty-six year-old, never-married son of Lebanese immigrants, who is likely the most influential consumer advocate of our lifetime has a story to tell. Only, a story about family recipes?


Passionate. Dogged. Unflinching. Dogmatic. Heroic. Unyielding. That's how I think of Ralph Nader. These are the characteristics that squeezed consumer protections out of government, industry, and bitter corporate captains. On the surface, he doesn't come across as a warm and fuzzy guy, and family cookbooks are kind of warm and fuzzy. Then again, he's dedicated his entire life to safeguarding the lives and livelihoods of as many people as possible. Underneath his diatribes must beat a big heart and a generous soul. That is the stuff of a family cookbook.


Rose Bouziane, Mr. Nader's mother, cooked every meal from scratch. He says she never bought hot dogs because she didn't know what was in them. She preached moderation and balanced nutrition. He too has been advocating for a diet based on whole foods, lots of veggies, low sugar, and lower/good fats for as long as he's been crusading for food safety (e.g. Wholesome Meat Act of 1967) and all those other ways he's been trying to protect us.


Imagining Mrs. Nader in her Winsted, Connecticut kitchen, led me to imagine a contemporary of hers, my grandmother, in her kitchen in the Mice Hill neighborhood of Fes, Morocco. The modest kitchen was Lalla Khadija's domain and millstone. Every meal from scratch, every day, for five boys (and four girls who didn't make it into adulthood) and a changing assortment of relatives. There was no Mother's Day then in Fes. But every day was Mother's Day, in a way. I try to imagine the sound of my grandmother's voice, apologetic but demanding, asking my middle-aged grandfather to go back to the market at the bottom of the hill for the carrots she forgot to ask for on his first trip.


I'm intrigued by Ralph Nader's cookbook. He also says his comfort foods are dates and figs. Simple sustenance that I've arrived at too at this point; I eat a date (or two) and a fig (or two) every day.


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