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The Food of My Youth (nybooks.com)
160 points by axiomdata316 on July 19, 2018 | hide | past | favorite | 90 comments

Why are stereotypical American "low-income" foods largely processed meats and junk food (e.g. boxed macaroni and cheese, spam, Vienna sausages), instead of staples like rice, oats, beans, lentils, etc. which also keep easily but are far more nutritious, tasty and just as cheap, if not cheaper on a per-calorie basis?

This is genuine curiosity, as I grew up in a region where the average income was much lower than the USA, but the food consumed by lower-income individuals was much healthier and fresher. We'd eat things like red beans and rice, curries, acar (a type of spiced pickle) and often cook meat over wood fires to save money on gas for the oven.

1) Cheap junk food is marketed, whereas cheap staples aren't. Basic white/brown rice is a commodity. There's no differentiation, and ultra-slim margins, so nobody's trying to market it to you. Easy Mac on the other hand...

2) Taste. To us adults (and mostly upper-middle class adults to boot) on HN, rice and beans may sound more appealing than cheap mac and cheese with mystery meat. Take a poll of 3-year-olds and you may get a different result.

3) Ease. Staples like rice and beans are only really cheap when you're buying them in dry form, bulk. This means you need to season them and cook them, which can be a long process. (My wife and I recently tried to save on black beans by cooking ourselves rather than buying canned. The result was good, but by the time you chop onions for seasoning, add other ingredients, monitor the beans, drain and cool the beans, and wash the crock pot, cutting board, knife, various spoons and measuring implements, etc., well, it ends up being a lot of work.) If you're a single parent working two jobs to support your kids, 5 minutes of preparation is meaningfully better than even, say, 20 minutes of preparation.

>Staples like rice and beans are only really cheap when you're buying them in dry form, bulk. This means you need to season them and cook them, which can be a long process.

I don't know. You make it sound as if it were difficult to cook these staples. During my college years these were the easiest things to cook, along with pasta and tomato sauce. Basically it was just a matter of filling the pot with water, dropping the ingredients and then just wait.

Similarly with tomato sauce, add the ingredients in a pot and just wait.

Adding rice and water to a pot and heating it has about a hundred failure modes that make the result unpalatable and ruins the reagents. Even when it goes correctly, the result is pretty bland, particularly to someone used to packaged food.

One cannot merely put the ingredients of tomato sauce into a pot, heat it in some arbitrary way, and expect the result to be recognizable as tomato sauce.

One cannot merely put the ingredients of tomato sauce into a pot, heat it in some arbitrary way, and expect the result to be recognizable as tomato sauce.

That's literally the description of a famous tomato sauce[1]. You can add a cup or two of water and a pound of pasta to the same pot at some indeterminate time towards the end of the process.

Feel free to argue that arbitrarily heating it may involve burning it. Whatever. Pasta with tomato sauce is ridiculously easy.

[1] https://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/1015178-marcella-hazans-...

I think you're massively overstating the complexity of making rice.

I don't mean this to be a larger statement on the economics / logistics / choices / what have you of being in poverty.

This is my recipe for tomato sauce.

1-Slice 3 to 5 tomatoes

2-Slice 1 to 2 portobello mushrooms.

3-Add olive oil to pan

4-Add ingredients to pan

5-Add salt to your liking.

6-Cover pan

7-Let it cook in a slow fire, no need to stir. Usually takes around 20 to 30 minutes. You can stir at the end to mix the sauce a bit.

-Use this sauce to top your pasta (pasta al dente is the best). Also add some Feta cheese.


p.s. I guess it would be more correct to call it chunky tomato sauce.

If your rice is bland you are not seasoning it right. Garlic or onions work great for this. And don't forget to add salt to the water!

As for "failure modes" you can make things more consistent by boiling the water in a kettle before adding it to the rice. You really can't go wrong this way.

You'd be surprised.

> bulk. That is also a keyword there, we don't have money to buy in bulk. I only have 5$ for food...not spending it all on one item or starving the kids till I have the money to buy bulk.

Obviously I haven't lived everywhere in the USA but in most states if you are poor enough to only have $5 to spend on food to feed your kids you qualify for SNAP benefits which will give you a few hundred dollars for food.

To replace canned black beans you need to put beans, water, and salt in a pressure cooker for ~40 min. If you want a tasty meal you’ll have to sauté some onions etc, but you’d have to do that with canned beans as well.

But yeah, I agree with the actual points you’re making. I also think a lot of people in the US literally don’t know how to cook.

And when you don't know how to cook -- or don't demonstrate and explain it; more so, engage your kids in it -- your kids don't, either.

I've had college graduate friends who didn't know how to make a basic (what we've got on-hand) stir fry.

> 2) Taste. To us adults ... on HN, rice and beans may sound more appealing than cheap mac and cheese with mystery meat. Take a poll of 3-year-olds and you may get a different result.

Depends on how the 3 year old was raised. I'm in my 30's, along with my brother, and my parents fed us what they ate. My mother cooked most of the week and weekends we would do takeout or the occasional restaurant visit. We were given portions from our parents meal and sometimes an extra side or appetizer. When old enough I got to pick my own meal which was never a kids meal of junk like mac n cheese or hot dogs. I wanted the good stuff like rack of lamb, steamed lobster with drawn butter, prime rib medium rare, fresh mashed potatoes, whole vegetables, etc. The good things my parents ate and shared with us. Sure there was junk food around, but it was kept to a minimum. The friends who became obese had parents who let them drink soda while feeding them deep fried frozen chicken, boxed mac n cheese, and a cupboard full of cookies, candies and other fattening snacks. Some are still morbidly obese to this day.

Good that your parents set you an example early on.

Personally, I'm not even trying to deceive myself any longer - to me, fast food usually does taste better than most regular food. Based on taste alone, I'd much prefer to go to McDonalds than a typical restaurant. I don't do that because of a conscious choice based on health concerns.

McDonald's food is designed to taste better. But honestly, it really doesn't when you get used to proper good food.

Also, cut out as much added sugar from your diet as possible. No sweet coffee, tea, drinks, soda pop, fruit juice and of course confectioneries and other sweet treats and candies. I was somewhat overweight because I liked eating too much good food along with sugar. Now I'm lean and thin after a year of slowly cutting out sugar. If I have any sugar it comes from fresh fruit. This also had the side effect of lowering my intake and craving of other carbs like breads from greasy sandwiches and pizza. I also feel less hungry and east less as sugar and carbs cause you to overeat.

Re: flavor: or you could just add some salsa, which is both healthy and reasonably cheap. Or just mix the beans in with something else healthy and cheap you are eating, like a salad. You don't seem to really applying your intelligence.

As to cooking beans, I do it all the time, and it's easy. Buy a couple of one-pound packs, sort for stones, dump in a pot with excess water, bring to boil, cook a pre-set time, dump into a collendar to drain off the excess, let set a bit to cool. Put in two zip-lock bags and put one in the refrigerator, one in the freezer, wash the collendar. A child could do it. Yeah, it takes time, but it's not like you have to sit there watching the pot the whole time you are cooking it. And you have beans for a week.

Your argument about marketing is more to the point.

I think the reason is 2 part.

Part 1 being often these "junk" processed foods are cheaper to buy for more quantity. eg. a box of macaroni and cheese can feed a family of 4 on $2USD. Possibly mix in a couple hotdogs which on the cheaper end can cost under $5USD for 16. in the end your feeding a family of 4 dinner for under $5.

Part 2 being time. Typically in lower income families (I grew up on the low end of the "middle class") both parents are working. my mother didn't have the time or energy to come home from and 8-10 hour work day and then cook for the next 90 minutes. that same box of macaroni and cheese (with hotdogs) can be made in ~30 minutes with little attention to it. and once my sister and I were old enough to help out, it was something we could do for her.

Thats my anecdotal and oversimplified answer anyway :)

> Part 2 being time.

I really don't think so. All the statistics we have point to poor people having more, often much more, free time than middle class people or rich people.



Thirteen year old children can also be taught to cook and prep reliably, as I'm sure you know.

Part 2 is probably more likely a basket of cultural issues. Sampling my middle income and lower friends, almost none of their parents taught them a thing about cooking. (Those that did of the very poor had 13 year olds cooking.)

I have seen a total lack of interest in cooking and a total lack of planning. It takes essentially zero time to soak beans overnight, and no time to simmer them in a pot with olive oil or butter or anything else you have (carrot water/cabbage water/stubs of vegetables if-you-have-any water). Many times a week I make beans and scrambled eggs this way.

> It takes essentially zero time to soak beans overnight, and no time to simmer them in a pot with olive oil or butter or anything else you have (carrot water/cabbage water/stubs of vegetables if-you-have-any water).

No it doesn't. Be realistic. Beans are going to take about 90 minutes to cook tender. Soaking beans takes pre-planning the night before. It is not low-effort cooking.

You are probably right that there is a lack of planning, and probably poor decisions being made in these households, but I'd suggest volunteering your time to go teach these people how to sort their lives out, and perhaps you'll find it's not as simple as beans and rice.


When a commenter says someone's claim is all wrong, but doesn't say what the truth is, much less offer some arguments, I assume it is usually because they know the original comment was right, but don't want to admit it.

You don't have to buy 20kg of rice for it to be cheap. You can buy a 1kg bag of potatoes for $0.50 - $1.00, and cooking them is as easy as putting them in the microwave for ~10 minutes. A single kilo of rice can be had for under $2.00 by itself, and cooking rice is quick and easy. Add a can of beans on top, some spices and you got yourself a dirt cheap vegetarian meal.

Outside of the USA you have plenty of families surviving on less than $10 a day, they don't wait for their paycheck to accumulate to buy food.

It sounds more like a cultural issue, or perhaps such staples are not easily found in most of the USA and/or are marketed as "health foods" and suffer a corresponding price increase?

> It sounds more like a cultural issue, or perhaps such staples are not easily found in most of the USA and/or are marketed as "health foods" and suffer a corresponding price increase?

Culture definitely sounds like a component, I wouldn't be surprised to hear a crass criticism of your rice-and-beans meal as something eaten by "those starving children on TV."

There's also the issue that a lot of folks simply don't know how to cook. The benefit of a lot of those box meals is the hand-holding, instructions included nature. I buy a box, it tells me what I need to buy, and how and how long to cook each component.

I'm a bit embarrassed to admit, but if you handed me a sack of rice and beans I'd have no idea how and for how long to cook it. I simply never learned those skills. In the past several months I've realized how poor my culinary skills are, and have been working to address that deficiency, but for many folks in the US we simply pick the path of least cost and effort.

> There's also the issue that a lot of folks simply don't know how to cook.

I think this is the "Part 3" to the list above. Rices/beans/potatoes can yield many, many different dishes. I can afford more expensive choices, but most of my meals still consist of these basic, cheap foods.

This is amazing. Here's how you cook them: heat up some water and add salt. Put the rice / beans in the water. Remove from water. Eat. Can be done in 15 minutes and is not any harder than boxed macaroni.

You can do a big batch of this and then later get fancy by throwing it around a frying pan, maybe add eggs and spices, and still be below $1 / meal.

> heat up some water and add salt. Put the rice / beans in the water. Remove from water. Eat.

Sure, but how long? How much salt? How much water? How big of a pot? Do I put them both in together? Separate? What kinds of spices? How much of each?

Ultimately, I can just toss 'em in and wing it or go Google it real quick but most folks just don't even get past the part of realizing "Oh hey, I don't have to do the same thing I've done for years." Most folks don't question their day-to-day rudimentary tasks, especially when they don't have to.

Having "broken" from the rut, it's rather amazing how complacent we can get.

> Sure, but how long? How much salt? How much water? How big of a pot? Do I put them both in together? Separate? What kinds of spices? How much of each?

Like hearing myself arguing with my SO.

- "Can you cook some pasta before I come home?"

- "Sure honey, but which one? How long? How much salt? How much water? Which pot?..."

Ok, I figured that one out eventually (definitely with the help of some instructions on a box, but they're often not reliable; first pasta I made I boiled longer than the manual said, and it still came out al dente). But the point is, cooking has ridiculous amounts of complexity hidden in it, including quite a lot that can be only be understood through trial and error.

I'd argue this is the most common case of technical communication problem between humans. My SO asking me to "just" cook a "simple" dish would be like me telling her to "just" make a "simple" JS gallery page. In both cases, we'll eventually figure this out, but it will involve lots of googling and stress.

> But the point is, cooking has ridiculous amounts of complexity hidden in it, including quite a lot that can be only be understood through trial and error.

As I think about it more, it really reminds me first getting into functional programming. These simple, primitive concepts appeared so daunting at first but once you get accustomed to the mentality and lose that initial fear you can turn those primitives into complex, beautiful software.

Rice is a 15 minutes ordeal but beans take much longer than that.

If you can afford it and are in a country where it's available, I can recommend using Hello Fresh or one of their competitors. It's both more cost effective for us (no waste) and they basically teach you how to cook a wide range of meals. I was a decent cook before we started but being exposed to a wider range of grains / beans etc has made me a far better cook.

Thanks for the recommendation! I'll definitely have to give one of those "Fresh in a box" services a chance. Right now, I've found a few upscale, exotic kits (just finished making chicken tika masala) at my local store. Still pre-made sauces, dehydrated veggies, etc. but it's getting me comfortable in the kitchen so "full fresh" seems like a great next step before venturing out on my own.

"It sounds more like a cultural issue, or perhaps such staples are not easily found in most of the USA and/or are marketed as "health foods" and suffer a corresponding price increase? "

When I moved to the US, I was appealed by the price of vegetables. Carrots, beets, cabbage are all so expensive compared to Western/Eastern europe.

How did it compare in terms of average income?

Carrots and cabbages are about the cheapest vegetables in the store. It doesn't even make a scratch in the bankroll.

Bell peppers, now that's another story.

Staple ingredients are available to most of the USA's population, including low income populations. Food deserts are real and deplorable, but most Americans who rely on processed foods do so for convenience, not because basic ingredients are inaccessible or too expensive.

Here's a study of how (among other things) longer-acculturated immigrants to the US shift their eating toward convenience foods:


Study results corroborate previous research highlighting the negative impact of acculturation on diet of Latinos. Many mothers described ready access to fresh fruits and vegetables in their native countries, although availability of such foods decreased in the U.S.. Mothers further described how their lives had become increasingly busy and complex, leaving little time for preparing foods, thereby making the allure of convenience foods, often which are unhealthy, more appealing.

This study details the experiences of Latino families. A quick literature skim and anecdata from my own life indicate that it happens with other immigrant groups coming to the US.

Some low-income subgroups of the American population continue to prepare food from scratch. When I was growing up, some of my friends came from low-income fundamentalist Christian families. Fast/convenience foods were a rare treat; the typical meal plan was "find what ingredients are on sale or have good coupons this week, cook meals from them." (Also, stockpile ingredients that keep well at the lowest-cost times of the year. Buy 6 bargain turkeys around Thanksgiving.) This seems to hold regardless of specific belief; I've heard similar stories from friends who grew up in strict Mormon or Orthodox Jewish households.

Later in graduate school I noticed that students also did more of their own cooking than you might expect from their age and income level (ranging from "nonexistent" to "just above poverty line.") I certainly cooked. It would have torpedoed my budget to eat boxed dinners or fast food every day.

Maybe deep religious belief and extended education are also, in different ways, factors that make you less acculturated into the American mainstream. The irreligious recent immigrant from Belarus, the pious Catholic, and the chemistry postdoc may all be less likely to follow the American default dietary practices because they're living further from American defaults to begin with.

Another factor I've noticed is that these low-income households that cook their own meals (and otherwise make long term cost-effective decisions) tend to be low-income but stable-income. If you're on a graduate school stipend or have taken out loans, you don't have a lot of buying power but you're not juggling two jobs or wondering how many hours you'll be scheduled for this week. Likewise, in those low-income religious families where I saw meals planned around costs, they didn't have much buying power per household member but income was steady month-to-month. If you don't have a modicum of stability you can't be sure that "invest in a chest freezer, buy meat in bulk during the best sales" is actually a good financial optimization plan.

I don't think that's necessarily true. Rice and beans are cheaper than mac & cheese. (Though only marginally better nutritionally.)

I think a lot of it has to do with availability. People in poverty are typically less well served by large grocery stores, and are more likely to shop in convenience stores. Convenience stores are less like to stock low margin products like bulk rice and dried beans, and more likely to stock higher margin processed foods.

I'm not an expert though, could be many factors.

The taste difference between rice or beans with nothing more in it (no vegetables, meat, etc) is pretty massive. Also, mac&cheese makes you more satiated then rice. Rice is mostly sacharids (no fat, no protein, no nothing) - so it gives you energy only for short time, then you are tired and need to eat again.

I know, because I cook/eat a lot of rice and beans. I have add a lot of fruits etc in between meals to feel good. The dirt cheap vegetarian foods people tend to suggest are not really foods you would eat long term without feeling hungry and tired a lot. With that in mind, I can see someone whose life generally sux to at least eat food that makes them less miserable.

Also, mac&cheese is quick cooking and beans are not when you cook them.

Rice and Beans needs to be mostly Beans to be filling. 30% Rice 70% Beans is tasty and filling where 70% Rice and 30% Beans is not.

It also has other health benefits: https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/94/3/869/4411867

Yeah, but I like bean soup with a lot of beans in it which has +vegetables+bacon. I did tried to make myself full from beans but mostly, but it does not really work and lasts shorter then normal meal with meat.

As in, it is ok lunch, but I am hunger in shorter time then with meat or say mac&cheese. Importantly, when I try to eat only that for 2-3 days, it does not work at all.

My experience with convenience stores is that they generally do stock items like beans and rice. They sell in time, and until they do they're shelf-stable more or less forever. And you can sell in small quantities - maybe 8oz or a pound for $2 - that hide the markup behind small numbers. Especially in areas where they're staples.

It's fresh fruit and veggies that you will tend to see the least of in c-stores.

It's largely a side-effect of the heavy marketing of processed foods post-WWII in America. Companies producing rations pivoted into producing processed food for the consumer market, which was marketed based on its speed and simplicity. The result is that the poor are either working so much that they value the speed of processed food, or they simply don't know any better and buy the processed food rather than cooking their own more nutritious food.

Time, energy, and infrastructure.

People experiencing low income in the US aren't generally just low on money. They're also low on time, energy, and often infrastructure. It's hard to buy staples in bulk and cook healthy meals with them when you don't have the time required or a place where you can reliably and safely store the staples.

And, at this point, a lot of it is cultural. Not all people value healthy food.

It seems in the US eating well is less valued than some places. Not sure why. This seems to propagate through generations, i.e people growing up around fast food and prepared food don't place value or learn to cook.

Also (and this is probably an "insensitive" opinion) yes, sometimes people really are too stressed and busy to properly prepare food. Other times (perhaps more frequently) they are just too lazy.

I think there's a glimmer of truth to this. And it's not that people are lazy because they're bad people. It's because the situation you're in is soul sucking. It's horrible. Imagine every day of your life living knowing that you may not be able to make the electric bill, pay your medical bills, worry about missing work or any of a million tiny little things that make life harder when you're poor.

Then convince someone that they need to spend an hour cooking healthier foods that requires more effort for most likely no benefit. Being in that position, I thought that a lot. It was easier to get McDonalds and then sit down in front of the TV/Computer and distract myself from the problems.

I think the problem isn't that people are lazy, that's a symptom of the real causes: anxiety, depression, and their ilk; from being in a situation that makes it all too easy to nest inside of and accept.

Have you ever successfully changed someone's behavior by calling them lazy?

Alright, let's break this one down.

1- Because they're stereotypes? Because nobody actually understands how people eat. Poor Americans eat rice and oats and beans, but those aren't stereotypical American. Ask yourself, is rice an American food? Do you imagine Americans eating it? I'm sure poor Asian Americans and Latinxs are. Do you think about poor people in Louisiana sustenance hunting/fishing? The US has an image, and that influences what people show/are willing to see.

2- Food Deserts. The US has large urban populations where the vast majority of the food available is canned/prepared. You can't cook over an open fire in a city because of regulations. You might live in a high rise apartment where you can't really cook much of anything because of the lack of space available. In those types of situations, it's easier to get a 1 dollar cheeseburger from a restaurant to meet your immediate food needs than try to buy a 20 LB bag of rice, carry it through downtown, and then store it in your living room.

3-When you're dealing with food, most people's immediate desire is calories. Your body is stupid, and when it has nutritional needs it often expresses them as just blanket hunger. People are able to get cheap calories in the US, but many of them are nutritionally minimal.

4- Relative value of money. You grew up somewhere that was poorer than the US, but there was likely deflation of the price of goods consummate with that. Poor in the US is not the same as poor in China or poor in the Sudan. They each come with their own special flavors of terrible options available to you.

When you're poor, you can't afford to buy massive bags of rice and store them airtight to keep out insects, so instead you buy small portions which are much more expensive. You can't afford the time to cook the rice, and you don't have anything decent to season it with.

Instead you buy a microwaveable rice dish. It's about the same cost as actual rice (just a bit more expensive), far quicker to cook, tastes better than unseasoned undercooked rice, and is usually pretty unhealthy.

When it comes to spoilable things like meat, it's difficult to know ahead of time when you'll be able to cook a proper dinner and therefore plan your purchases. You might well end up just catching a burger at a fast food place and never get a chance to cook the $8 of meat you bought.

Now I'm in a place where I cook all my meals. I can go to the store twice a week and buy nice cuts of steak or chicken. I can take two hours to make a fancy meal. I have no shortage of things to season with (imported oil, foreign spices, etc). I eat much better now for less total cost, but I have more upfront costs and much more time invested.

> When you're poor, you can't afford to buy massive bags of rice and store them airtight to keep out insects, so instead you buy small portions which are much more expensive. You can't afford the time to cook the rice, and you don't have anything decent to season it with.

This sounds like it was written by an alien trying to reason about poverty from first principles. I've been poor. Nothing prevented me from buying big bags of rice. I wouldn't have had any trouble keeping insects out of that bag. And, despite myths about the noble, ever-working poor man, I had more than enough time to cook it.

I mostly bought shit food because I liked eating shit food. There's no reason to imagine further impediments. That one's sufficient.

I grew up poor as dirt on the east coast. We couldn't keep flour on hand more than a couple of weeks because it would almost certainly be infested with loaches in the summer. I had many cases of opening bags of rice to the same (extremely unappetizing) surprise.

I didn't lack time to do cooking because I was working constantly. I lacked time to do cooking because my work schedule was all over the place and the buses in the DC metro area are never on time. Between working and trying to get classes in (or working a second job, or watching your kid) you don't really have time to watch rice cook for an hour.

I'm sorry my experience growing up poor as dirt doesn't align with your preference for eating shitty food. Obviously I'm the one in the wrong here.

While I agree he was being more than a little dismissive, I think this is an important thing to understand: "Poor" doesn't mean the same thing to everyone.

When you grow up in the suburbs and your friends get brand new clothes every month when they get taken shopping, and you're lucky to get 2 new sets of clothes at the start of the school year, you feel poor. And the kid who grew up in a homeless shelter thinks you both sound rich.

Poor does different things to different people because poor is always relative. I was "poor" in NJ working in restaurants in my 20's and I never cooked at home because I worked 12-14 hour days. I still paid my rent, put gas in my car, and had money to buy drugs after it all. If I told someone who couldn't feed their kids what I was doing, they'd have looked at me like I was the biggest wastrel in the world. But when all I could see was the rich people rolling into the dining room day after day, I couldn't help but feel like I was at the very bottom of everything.

What you went through sounds terrible. And saying that it's just because you're lazy or stupid or "weren't being poor right" doesn't fix anything but just acts as a way to explain someone else's feelings/opinions. I wish you luck fellow human, because none of this is easy.

> And saying that it's just because you're lazy or stupid or "weren't being poor right" doesn't fix anything but just acts as a way to explain someone else's feelings/opinions.

Indeed! My dismissiveness comes from repeated encounters with well-meaning, well-off liberals who seemingly cannot find a single behavior they aren't willing to excuse on the basis of poverty, until they've by degrees whittled the poor down to automaton-like slugs in their minds, useless dependents, capable of nothing, completely lacking in agency.

I've been poor. I could make rice.

If the person I'm responding to's experience was different, I take them at their word.

People are making bad choices. How do you get them to make better choices, or do you just put your hands in your pockets and tell them it's their fault?

One might start by recognizing that poor people are, first of all, just people, which means there are lazy ones and hard-working ones and smart ones and dumb ones and some who've had bad luck and some who have brought all their problems on themselves -- and every possibility in between.

It isn't empathetic or helpful to treat a group of people as though they have no control over their own lives.

Americans should have mandatory cooking classes if this is how the average person thinks of food. Rice does not take an hour to cook. You can even cook normal rice in the microwave in 12 minutes, just put it in a bowl, add enough water, cover with plastic wrap (with a small space for the steam to escape), and that's it.

I've been arguing for years that cooking should be taught as science courses in school.It's far and away the most practical application of STEM. And even the most scientifically disinclined could still take something away from the class.

Harvard has one that's available as a MOOC.


IMO, it was an imperfect class for a number of reasons but the idea is a good one.

Well when I was in middle school we did, "Home Economics". Sure it was a bit dated with "How to write checks" and such. Other than that we learned a ton about the basics of cooking. Using an oven, food prep, and what was a good "deal" when making food purchases.

Yes, I know someone who likes unhealthy food and would not eat healthy food even if I paid for it. Sometimes I would give in and eat unhealthy with her, for which she would thank me. Somewhere deep down crap food provides her comfort, I guess.

> Why are stereotypical American "low-income" foods largely processed meats and junk food (e.g. boxed macaroni and cheese, spam, Vienna sausages), instead of staples like rice, oats, beans, lentils, etc. […]?

To quote from (http://www.cracked.com/blog/the-5-stupidest-habits-you-devel...): Fresh food […] takes forever to prepare.

Rice, for instance, takes about half an hour to make. If you’re poor, you most likely work all the time, and are constantly tired. No way are you going to waste half a hour to make rice (just plain rice!), when you can get something much more tasty and almost as cheap which takes five minutes at most to make?

> We'd […] often cook meat over wood fires to save money on gas for the oven.

That is not a possibility in urban environments.

Because processed foods are made in a factory.

Two things this affords. 1. Massive automation, so more profits can flow to less people 2. Far more calories can be packed into processed food than what is natural. But it's far less nutritious. Your body can't handle it and that's why there's so many fat kids and fat Americans.

The staples are effectively made in a factory as well, or at least industrially processed. You don't just hand people a bunch of wheat.

While it's true that a lot of processed food is sweetened, if you look at the caloric density of traditional staples, it's usually pretty high. No one would have planted those crops otherwise.

Yeah the replies to GGP do not actually answer the question. Learning to cook from staples is very financially and nutritionally rewarding and more people should do it. I am not sure where the disconnect is.

One thing I have observed with simple staple dishes (like beans and rice) is that if you don't know how to add fat, salt, and spices in good proportion you can end up not liking the the result. You end up resorting to convenience foods instead and shoot yourself in the foot health-wise, as an unintuitive result of not using enough fat and salt in your cooking.

Because it isn't taught any more? Not by parents, not by schools.

My upbringing would be considered strangely quaint by most here on HN, I believe. When I was in high school, there was still a home economics teacher. The class was elective.

The school also had a very formidable wrestling team, and the home ec teacher was the mother of a former student that had gone to a Big 10 university on a wrestling scholarship, so she new the life, and the health impacts of the constant struggle to make weight while doing strenuous physical activity.

She went out of her way to recruit wrestlers to her food & nutrition class. Argument 1: I promise cooking labs will be on meet days (you weighed in at 7:00 AM and could eat all you wanted the rest of meet day). Argument 2: Lots of girls in class. (She was a natural salesperson, this pitch was a great closer).

Along the way she taught a lot about nutrition, health, and meal planning. The homeworks were hard and meaningful -- I remember these half-starved guys obsessing over their menus, calorie counts, and nutrition analysis when by rights they should have been doing algebra. She was a wise and wonderful teacher.

Where do kids learn to cook and meal plan any more? From parents who don't know how to cook or meal plan? There are certainly foodies around, but obsessing over baking your home-made biscotti is not the same as managing the family's daily nutrition on a budget.

This is a worthwhile point.

Eating is just as cultural as the food itself. Rice and pork are both staples in Asian and Mexico, but the way the meals are prepared and served are so completely different because of a range of influences.

Why do people in the US eat the way we do? A combination of having a massive number of people living in our country, the ability to produce an enormous amount of food (especially meat), a larger GDP than anywhere else and a culture that's always trying to do things quickly/while on the go.

The culture is complex and the reasons are many, but people not learning to cook while also having specific expectations of what food should be is definitely a large part of the equation here.

3. Shelf life, which means no spoiled food and lost revenue for the stores.

4. Marketing / Branding, you can market packaged food and build a valuable brand. Hard to do that with fresh produce since you can't really control the supply.

Fat is just calories. Fat doesn't care about vitamins, or minerals. It doesn't care about anything but calories in vs calories out. Your body can absolutely handle calorie dense, low vitamin/mineral foods and not get fat, but there's a whole bunch of other factors that play into it.

Lower income obesity can be linked to the quality of the food, but OP asking why the US seems more interested in processed packaged food vs "simple staples" that other countries cook. The answer there is availability and cultural perceptions (both of what the people should be eating, and of what the observer thinks the people in that culture are eating)

Far more nutritious? Hardly. Rice, Oats, Beans, Lentils are all just pure carbs just like the junk food (or worse, because the junk food contains fat which will make you feel fuller). Will spike your insulin hard and not keep you full long term.

Lentils and most beans are low on the glycemic index and have a balance of protein in them. As a T1 diabetic for 10+ years, I personally find that glycemic index is the leading indicator for how large and sustained my insulin spikes are

GI Info from ADA: http://www.diabetes.org/food-and-fitness/food/what-can-i-eat... GI info: https://www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/glyce... Lentil Macros: https://www.myfitnesspal.com/food/calories/macro-organic-gre... Black Bean Macros: https://www.myfitnesspal.com/food/calories/publix-dried-blac...

None of what you just said is entirely true. Beans, Lentils, Rice and Oats all consist mostly of starches, which are broken down slowly over the digestion process and contain many indigestible starches or fiber to fill you up and promote body health. Not to mention that beans and lentils are about 2:1 carb to protein content and they all contain some level of other micro-nutrients (vitamins/minerals). Not all carbs are the same, and many junk foods are spiked with glucose/fructose sugars that break down quickly and create the spike you're talking about.

When I was a kid there was a time we were on food stamps. My sister used to make "poor man's ice cream" (basically chocolate milk poured over ice) and the food I remember the most is ALDI brand frozen burritos. Eventually we got more money because my mom got a job working in New Jersey for a large insurance company. After high school I went to culinary school because I wanted to cook, in part because poor people food made me feel poor.

After I moved out, I was working in restaurants and wasn't making much by American standards, but I could make myself food that wasn't poor people food.

This stuff clings to you. Some people fight it, refusing to go back. Other people remember the little comfort they were able to get from the foods of their childhood.

Food is so fundamental to life in so many different ways. It's about being cared for. It's about showing someone else you care. It's about literally providing life to another human. There's so many strange cultural hang ups about what it should and shouldn't be. It's used as a way to identify people who don't belong to your group, to shame "the other" or to try and fit in when you don't feel comfortable. People convinced that there are right and wrong choices.

And when the Man handed over our food stamps, we were called moochers, a drain on our country. It’s no different now—worse even, as those people on the Hill try to pass a bill that would make people earn their food stamps. Tacking on work requirements—implying that foster kids are too lazy to pay for their own food, that mothers like mine, whose husbands went off to serve and never came back quite the same, are just not trying hard enough to make ends meet.


This hits me in the feels. My parents weren't the richest in the world but I was fortunate enough to have food on the table without resorting to the equivalent of food stamps in my country.

The struggle is real for some people and we just don't know how much it hurts us years later. Even today whenever I have access to cereals other than the cheapest kind I have this uncomfortable feeling like I shouldn't eat something that expensive.

This was such an unexpectedly powerful piece of writing. Thanks for sharing this.

We've updated the link from https://longreads.com/2018/07/18/defined-by-want/, which points to this.

Damn, very moving article!

I don't want to get into what I ate as a child. Too crazy.

But I was for sure poor as a young adult in the US. So we ate lots of rice, beans, and whatever veggies were discounted or ready to trash. And for additional protein, eggs and beef heart.

Again, I find myself obliged to link to this excellent article:

The 5 Stupidest Habits You Develop Growing Up Poor


#5 You Develop a Taste for Shitty Food

Then you grow older on a professional level of income, learn to appreciate great food and realize your food budget averages $1000/month. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

As Misao Okawa who reached age 117 said, eating delicious things is the key to longevity - though western "delicious things" are way different to Japanese "delicious things", I still like to lie to myself and proceed to order the bread pudding.

If you cook, no.

I know quite a few kids that are at least "comfortable" financially and they prefer boxed mac and cheese and simple hot dogs and cheese pizza and so on because that's what they get at day care and school.

My mother is an excellent cook, but to be honest it took me until my 20's to prefer homemade mac and cheese over the boxed kind, simply because I had developed a taste for it as a child. And my mother, ever the pragmatic one, wasn't gonna waste her time making something from scratch when her worthless children preferred the cardboard crap.

I've done a full 180, and now I'm the pretentious hipster who refers to it as "Elbow macaroni with bechamel sauce".

I was an exchange student who became Canadian after some time , later traveling to outside of north america I found Aunt Jemima's was not what people are thinking of what is maple syrup(something that the host family was buying as a staple and sometimes adding to corn and barn flakes).

For me this is the only kind I would put on pancakes.

God that whole article struck close to home.

I was lucky with food, though. While my parents would stock up how they could, we lived in an agricultural community and there was plenty of fresh vegetables around. My mother also grew them in the back and we learned young to love raw, fresh vegetables instead of eating [too much] candy or other stuff. Even when we did have something like boxed mac and cheese, there was almost always broccoli in it. We didn't get a lot of meat, let alone good meat, and to this day I suffer a B12 deficiency partly for it, but I still love getting my fresh greens, raw or cooked. Lucky that way.

Do you suffer a deficiency because it takes a long time to build up B12 levels, or because you are used to not eating much meat?

To be honest, I'm not sure what caused it. I eat a fair amount of meat now. I haven't had my blood done in a little while and I'm probably due.

The last time I had it done was a couple of years ago and it was noted that I had low hemoglobin as a result of low B12/Iron. My doc suggested I eat more red meat and take a supplement. I never used to be able to afford much in the way of beef so I got my protein through other means. Anemia runs in my family, so it may be related to that—though I'm not anemic myself.

Culturally interestingly though, he mentions needing a new dryer right now, when you can just air-dry them.

That isn’t an option if you either have a small enough apartment that you don’t have any space to hang clothes, or don’t have enough presentable spare clothes to be able to wait until the washed clothes are dry.

1. For children mac and cheese tastes better (and a lot of adults). It's highly palatable. 2. Rice and beans are cheaper but are small bags of rice and canned beans cheaper than some other highly palatable thing that's easier to make? (It takes a lot more time to make dried beans). 3. Decision fatigue- it's really hard to make healthier decisions when you're poor, overworked, and tired. When you go to the grocery store I'm sure your looking for something that will quickly release some dopamine. 4. America has a pretty sad food culture and while they're might be some amazing asian or Mexican grocery stores with good cheap stuff, a lot of non recent immigrant people have super negative stereotypes about these types of places.

Offtopic but the thumbnail was really misleading to me, because there is such a thing as a prison burrito and the process you make it is actually similar to the thumbnail (pouring something into junk food bag, and using it as a mixing container).

Example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bSKpDwDhq24

I wonder if the inspiration for these menu items came from similar recipes in low income areas? E.g. the prison burrito might have derived from "hot cheetos". Mostly, recipes born out of a desire for fancier food with limited ingredient choices / availability in food banks / nonperishables

That was powerful, made me tear up.

This food is disgusting. Cheese whiz in a cheetos bag? Processed crap like this is the invention of greedy opportunists and their factories built to feed people drivel. To long for such things is to long for suicide.

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