Small Bites: Tricked out Halloween treats and rethinking food as fuel

by Terry B on October 26, 2011

Artisanal confectioners making grown-up Halloween treats is the subject of my latest Character Approved Blog post. And Food Day and revisiting a wonderful old book have me rethinking food as fuel.

Halloween seems to bring out our collective sweet tooth. No other holiday can match it for candy sales—not Easter, not even Valentine’s Day. In 2009, Nielsen estimated that Americans buy 589 million pounds of candy during the Halloween season every year, shelling out an astounding $1.9 billion for it. During Halloween week alone, 90 million pounds of chocolate gets sold. No estimate on how much makes it off store parking lots.

And increasingly, it’s not all Pop Rocks and fun-sized Snickers. Artisanal confectioners are producing handmade Halloween treats from exquisite ingredients aimed at grown-up palates. Bittersweet French chocolate with sea salt, dark chocolate lollipops flavored with ancho and chipotle chilies. For more on these and other delectable Halloween treats (no tricks), check out the photo gallery on my latest post on the USA Character Approved Blog.

Food Day, cabins and canned meat: Rethinking food as fuel

I realize I’m not just changing gears here, I’m probably stripping them. But a couple of things have had me thinking about food as fuel lately.

In our current food-obsessed culture (and I count myself among the obsessed), with its appetite for infused oils, locally foraged mushrooms and creations like the candies described above, people who regard food as merely fuel for their bodies are seen as somehow lacking. In college, long before I (or the nation, for that matter) had heard of arugula, I was appalled when a friend described his boss eating canned ravioli straight from the can, unheated, saying, “What good is a stomach if it can’t heat its own food?” Okay, that still appalls me. But there has to be a balance between the two worlds.

Food, after all, is fuel. The beloved traditional dishes from all over our planet that we carefully recreate or reinvent in restaurant and home kitchens every day began as ways to fill bellies and keep people alive with what was at hand. Over generations, they evolved, adding a bit of this to make it healthier, a bit of that to stretch it to feed more and finally, a bit of this because it just tastes so much better like that, doesn’t it?

But food is still fuel. Or it should be. Last Monday was Food Day, a day of events nationwide, all aimed at getting people to eat real food. The goals behind the effort include reducing diet-related diseases, expanding access to food to alleviate hunger, curbing junk-food marketing to kids and protecting farm workers, farm animals and the environment.

It’s no secret that our appetite for fast food and fatty, salty, overly processed packaged foods with questionable nutritional value—coupled with big food’s willingness to fuel this lucrative appetite—is creating an epidemic of obesity and preventable health problems. By eating more real food, a diet made up “largely of vegetables, fruit, beans and whole grains, along with some seafood, low-fat dairy products, and poultry,” as Food Day’s website puts it, we would be fueling our bodies in ways that would lead to longer, healthier lives for many of us.

The other thing that got me thinking about food as fuel was rereading a book that really isn’t about food at all. Helen Hoover’s excellent memoir, A Place in the Woods, is the story of Ms. Hoover and her husband giving up their big city lives in Chicago for a very different existence in two tiny cabins in Minnesota’s north woods. I read it the first time while in college, being appalled by room temperature canned ravioli, and it stuck with me far more than Thoreau’s Walden, even though the central message of simplify, simplify, simplify was the same.

Revisiting A Place in the Woods recently, I was pleased to see that Hoover’s passages describing the nature around her were as beautiful and peaceful as I remembered. What I hadn’t remembered were the many calamities, most of them dire, some of them life threatening, that beset these two babes in the woods. Nor had I remembered the food. Obviously, it hadn’t registered with me the first time. Seen now through my food-focused eyes, it leapt off the page.

Hoover and her husband clearly saw food as fuel, something to stave off hunger and keep them going. And to be measured not by quality or taste, but by “is there enough?” Both chose not to hunt or fish, a fine choice in the city, but somewhat limiting if you live in a cabin miles from even the smallest town. The book takes place in the late 1940s or perhaps early 1950s. Canned goods and margarine, both relatively cheap and easy to keep without refrigeration (they had no electricity), were staples for them. A luxury, rarely indulged in as their checkbook rarely registered more than two figures and was only occasionally replenished by sudden good fortune, was canned meats. That stopped me in my tracks, made me reread it, even wander off to find Marion to tell her about it.

I loved rediscovering this book. Even though the life they chose is one I would never aspire to—I’m a city boy right down to my bones—it was fascinating to experience it through Hoover’s eyes, and I could understand why they embraced it so completely.  The fresh surprise this time was the food. I love food. Making it, eating it, thinking, talking and writing about it. But it’s good to remember that, before it’s a surprising combination of flavors or a brilliant rethinking of a classic or even locally sourced, organic or whatever, food is fuel. And sometimes, good enough is good enough, especially when shared with family and friends.

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