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The Fear of Raw Ingredients

My generation was raised to fear cookie dough. Salmonella could lurk in every rubber spatula, and terrible things would befall the child who ate a bite of a raw confection. Only baking could render the dough safe.

Thanks to the recall of millions of eggs from Iowa’s Hillandale farms and Wright County Egg this past summer, the fear of uncooked eggs has intensified. According to The Washington Post, an estimated 2.3 million of the 47 billion eggs produced each year — by my calculations, one in about 20,000 — are contaminated. I worry that pretty soon even a well-cooked kugel will go the way of the Rocky Balboa-style smoothie.

But who is really making cookies or kugel from scratch nowadays, anyway? Not many Americans (even, despite the current food craze). Last year, Michael Pollan pointed out that the typical American has pared down his or her food preparation time to 27 minutes a day. Back in the ‘60s, when a MacDonald’s was a novelty and fresh food was safe, we devoted twice that much time to everyday cooking. The cook of the household also likely spent another hour or so shopping for ingredients. Pressed schedules are just one factor; I believe the fear of tainted raw ingredients — whether spinach, jalapenos, meat, or eggs — urges people toward those center aisles of frozen, prepared, and processed goods.

This past August, during a reporting trip to Haiti, I had a lesson on what that earlier approach to food might have looked like. After a day of scribbling notes about a group of volunteers working with the deaf community in Port-au-Prince, I would come back to my host’s home to find a homemade meal. She served food that had taken a good chunk of the day to prepare, starting with fresh, whole ingredients procured from a series of tiny markets.

Yes, this meal makeup is probably due in large part to the fact that Haiti after the earthquake lacks the wherewithal to offer much processed food or to build a system that would transport and store ingredients in large supermarkets until someone bought them. My host was also able to serve that kind of meal because she could afford to hire a maid to make it.

My hope for our batter-slurping souls actually comes from that time spent in Haiti. On my last full day of the visit, I sat with one of the volunteers as she divided a huge canister of powdered milk into individual plastic bags for people in a deaf tent camp. This woman had grown up in Haiti before settling in America. She was born before fast food took hold in the U.S. and before it began encroaching on poorer countries. When the container was empty, the volunteer tilted it and shook the last teaspoon of the powder into her hand. Then she stuck out her tongue and licked up the powder.

Milk powder is not the most delightful delicacy. It’s a chalky substance that manages to be salty and sweet but otherwise very bland. But the flavor clearly was not the point. “I remember this from way back when I was growing up” the volunteer said. Then she closed her eyes and smiled as the last of it lingered.

So is all lost back in the U.S., as food recalls hasten our already-dwindling kitchen culture? Maybe not. Though buying fresh and cooking from scratch does foster bonding and healthy eating, fond memories do not rely on it. The same elements of family closeness and enjoyment of culinary moments still exist, just in different packages.


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