Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Forays in American cooking: part II

It's not sporting to make fun of the USDA. They're such an easy target. While we were in Washington the other day, we walked past the USDA headquarters, a huge building near the Mall. I wondered if somewhere inside was a test kitchen where government nutritionists labored to create new dishes that are thrifty and healthy. I knew there was a cafeteria in the basement, and I was tempted to stop in. We were looking for a place to eat lunch anyway and I was curious to see if they served “Pizza meatloaf” or “Ranch beans” or any of the other dishes in the official USDA cookbook.

Today was supposed to begin week two of living off the USDA thrifty food plan but when I saw that for lunch today I was supposed to prepare “Chicken and vegetables, scalloped potatoes and a homemade peach cake” (not to mention grapes, and one slice of bread-and-marg per person” I decided that this is not how I want to spend my summer vacation.

One week doing this diet taught me a number of things, mainly that the USDA wants us to eat. They want us to eat a lot. I don't know if this is because most Americans really do eat as much as what is presented on this menu, or if it's because they're trying to move American agricultural products. As we progressed through the past week, my fridge got more and more stuffed with leftovers. I thought we'd need to take a time out between week's one and two just to eat them up. Even though I was using a menu plan designed for a family of four to feed a family of six, there was still more than we could eat.

Example: Lunch on day four was homemade turkey chili, cooked macaroni, and peach-apple crisp. The turkey chili was more than enough, and it had barley in it. Why would we eat barley and macaroni in the same meal? Even without the macaroni, there were three servings of chili left over.

The USDA plan sticks to the outdated food pyramid, so it's ridiculously carb-heavy. Potatoes and bread at the same meal? Cereal and toast for breakfast? It also relies heavily on juice as a source of fruit. Why not just eat an actual piece of fruit? Indeed, foods rich in fiber are not in abundance in this menu.

The USDA wants Americans to eat less sodium, so many of the recipes have no added salt and as a result are tasteless.

The USDA wants Americans to eat a lot of meat. Breakfast is usually vegetarian, but both lunch and dinner for both days for both weeks (except for dinner on the last day) include meat—mainly beef, chicken and turkey.

The USDA does not approve of butter and lists margarine as a substitute in all recipes. Most recipes call for minimal amounts of fat, and the cookbook has taken many dishes that are traditionally fried and reworked them so they are baked.

Apparently, the USDA wants us to eat lots and lots of rice and potatoes. I made rice pudding for dessert four times last week, and that's four times more than I've cooked it in my life up to this point. The USDA rice pudding recipe is OK although it has that unfortunate “what the hell is rice doing in my pudding” texture that is the one fatal flaw of this dish no matter who cooks it. I had to double the amount of sugar called for to make it palatable. One day we ate cooked rice cereal for breakfast. This was rice cooked in milk instead of water, to which you add a little sugar and cinnamon. Potatoes appear on the menu almost daily: hash browns or “baked potato cakes” for breakfast, the ubiquitous scalloped potatoes for dinner and lunch. One day, I even had to bake “crispy potatoes” as snack.

I can appreciate that it would be difficult to put together a menu like this, since not only do the foods need to be reasonably nutritious and cheap, the recipes need to appeal to what someone at the USDA has decided is the typical American taste: nothing too ethnic, conservative seasonings, familiar ingredients that are available everywhere, and the menu has to provide enough calories to satisfy everybody.

Still, not everything we ate was terrible. The scalloped potatoes were good the turkey chili became edible once I added salt to it, and the oatmeal cookies—made with applesauce to replace some of the fat—were delicious. The oatmeal cookie recipe is the only one I'll keep and make again.

Tales of doom regarding our economy plus rapidly increasing food and gas prices have left me feeling worried about how I'll feed my family if a serious crisis develops, which is one reason I tried this menu. There are other menus out there. The Hillbilly Housewife has published an emergency plan which will feed a family of 4-6 for $45 per week. (That's probably $80 in Charlottesville dollars.) I'd like to try it. You can access it here. It seems more sensible, less doggedly devoted to the food pyramid than the USDA plan. It includes many vegetarian meals which makes sense if you're trying to save money. The USDA's commitment to serving meat twice a day is silly.


  1. Oh, come on, it's not fair to make fun of the USDA building . . . especially the way the swastika trim shines down upon you as you exit the metro each and every time.

  2. By sticking with the plan for an entire week, you've already learned what you need to know.

    So are you going to read "The Omnivore's Dilemma" now for balance? :-)

  3. The menus remind me of those weird school lunch combinations: A bowl of chili with peanut butter sandwiches. Tater-tot casserole. And the ubiquitous stewed tomatoes.

  4. So this country's obesity problem is actually a government conspiracy.

    Those menus are just insane. I'm impressed that you could stick with it for an entire week.

    Oh, and I'm with you on the rice pudding. Shudder.

  5. Rice pudding: engage instant vomit reflex!

    I've read The Hillbilly Housewife in the past and like her recipes and attitude, but - like you - I find it hard to believe the $45 bit. 89 cents for hot dogs? $1.50 for a jar of peanut butter? $1.00 for jelly? Not even at Food Lion (and yes, I shop there often so you can all start looking down on me now).

  6. Food Lion is so uncool that it's cool. Sometimes I shop there just for spite! The supermarket elitism we have in this town is so silly.

  7. Maybe the point is, on that diet, you should be so full of food that you aren't foraging for snacks the rest of the day.

    I do this recipe I found that takes cooked brown rice, mix it up with some fat-free vanilla yogurt, a little cinnamon, a toss of raisins and a chopped up apple. I've had it for breakfast or lunch and really love it.

  8. I think the USDA has been bought out by the beef cattlemen's association of america and the potato-growers-cooperative. Just a theory I'm running with.