Tuesday, November 10, 2009

What's for dinner in rural America?

Ree Drummond's new cookbook, The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Recipes from an Accidental Country Girl, currently #1 on The New York Times Hardcover Advice bestseller list, is receiving great fanfare in the blogosphere and media. The Pioneer Woman, as she is known in the blogging world, resides on a cattle ranch in Pawhuska, Oklahoma (population 3,629), reports The New York Times. The article goes on to describe Ree and the concept behind her cookbook:
A self-described “career gal in black” and a vegetarian, she was between jobs in Los Angeles and Chicago when she met the man who would become her husband during a stopover in her hometown.

Now, she is rooted in a community where meat is eaten at all three meals, pasta is still regarded with suspicion and vegetables other than potatoes are considered entirely optional. Her cooking reflects her attempts to reconcile her two worlds through recipes like steak with whiskey cream sauce, leek and potato pizza and pico de gallo.
The question just begs asking: what's for dinner in rural America?

Meat three meals a day?

Rural Americans eat more processed pork and more beef, especially ground beef, than their urban or suburban counterparts. The USDA reports, for example, that consumers in rural areas eat at least nine pounds more beef per capita than consumers in other areas.

Food deserts

Many rural residents live in “food deserts”—places where few or no grocery stores exist. Nationwide, over 400 counties are classified as food deserts; 98 percent of these counties are rural. Diets of food desert residents are characteristically deficient. A study in Iowa found that 34 percent of food desert residents lack adequate dairy consumption, 64 percent lack adequate vegetable consumption, 45 percent lack enough fruits, and 30 percent are protein deficient.

Junk food country

Convenience stores, which are often the closest and most accessible option for rural residents, largely sell high fat, prepackaged foods. A study of one South Carolina rural county revealed that nearly 75 percent of the county’s food stores were convenience stores, compared to only 8 to 41 percent in metropolitan places. While 68 percent of the rural stores in the study carried whole milk, only two percent carried low-fat or non-fat milk options. Thirty percent of the convenience stores stocked packaged bacon, however none stocked lean ground beef or chicken. Only four percent of convenience stores in the study carried fresh produce of any variety!

The rural American diner

In the 1990s, McDonald's unveiled a "Golden Arches Cafe" in Hartsville, Tennessee (population 2,395), a small town version of the popular fast food chain. The 1950s-style diner serves up "mashed potatoes, Salisbury steaks, green beans and banana splits." My dad lives in a small town (population 1,859), where there are three restaurant choices, two of which are diner-style eateries with "country cooking" menus consisting of country fried steak, biscuits and gravy, and grilled cheese sandwiches. The heavy-on-the-grease, easy-on-the-vegetables country cooking is certainly associated, for better or worse, with rural roadside restaurants.

Cooking with the Pioneer Woman

What's for dinner at the Pioneer Woman's rural ranch? The extensive list of recipes on her website includes a whole section on Cowboy Food. Check out recipes for onion strings, roasted beef tenderloin a.k.a. Heaven on a Fork, and the best baked beans ever.

She also learned an important lesson on cookin' rural, a reality that, no doubt, many rural people face:
I learned very quickly that there’s no “running to the store real quick” if I run out of an important staple. If a key ingredient is missing in my meal preparation, I simply have to wing it. To reinvent the wheel. To make do with what I have. It’s an important lesson for any home cook to learn; I just had to move many miles from civilization to learn it.


Lisa R. Pruitt said...

Darn, I was within a few miles of Pawhuska just a few days ago; I'd forgotten that's where Pioneer Woman lives or I'd have dropped by. I was visiting my sister north of Collinsville, and we took my son to see Woolaroc, Frank Phillips' ranch, just over in Osage County--for which Pawhuska is the county seat. I've also written about Pawhuska is this early blog post, just after I saw "August: Osage County" on Broadway: http://legalruralism.blogspot.com/2008/01/august-osage-county-as-comment-on-rural.html

In any event, the part of this post that really resonated with me was the ground beef part! Other than when we had venison in the freezer, it was all about ground beef in my rural upbringing. I'd like to say that my mom had a way with ground beef, but the truth is that her repertoire was pretty limited. No wonder I haven't bought a package of ground beef in at least a decade.

Slice of Pink said...

Ree recently built a guest house on the ranch! Maybe we can get an invite. =)

tcruse said...

I, too, am now averse to ground beef after having meat and potatoes at most every meal - a carryover from my mom's upbringing on a farm in Iowa.

When visiting, she used to (and sometimes still does) come back with a cow in a cooler - ground beef galore, steaks, roasts, you name it - butchered from her brothers and sisters' farms.

It is amazing to me that many rural residents - especially those living close to, or on farms, are deficient in the products usually grown there (like dairy and vegetables). I understand that for some rural people, money is often an issue - fresh fruits and vegetables are more expensive than processed foods. But for stores to not even offer fresh products? Is this because it's more profitable to grow feed instead of vegetables for home consumption? [side note: even if the products were available, they're not always appreciated...my two cousins grew up on a farm and won't touch a fresh vegetable except for corn. It seems so contradictory to me].

Back in New York, my mom is now a convert to the fruit and vegetable diet. My dad isn't so convinced.