I made fondue a few weeks back. The gruyere and emmentaler cheeses cost $9.00 and $6.00 respectively for a half pound of each. I used a California Sauvignon Blanc at $13.00 a bottle. The bread (a good artisan French loaf from a local bakery) was $4.00. Kirschwasser (cherry brandy) was $8.00 but I only used a bit – call it $2.00. Assorted pickles, olives, and sliced sausages on the side – $5.00. So altogether I spent $39.00 on dinner for a dinner for two. There was a bit of fondue and bread leftover, so let’s assume it was more like $35.00 for two. Not so cheap, but cheaper than the $70.00 the Melting Pot charges – and probably better tasting.
And yet, fondue is actually a peasant meal. Herders in the Alps would melt the cheese they made (probably the cheese that wasn’t quite up to commercial quality) over a fire in the wine their neighbors made. Then they’d dip the bread their wives made in the cheese and munch on homemade sausages and pickles. Such a meal wasn’t exactly free. Making cheese, wine, sausage, pickles, and bread all require a great deal of work and skill. But such meals probably didn’t cost the herder a single Swiss centime. Peasant food. Cheap eats.
It strikes me as supremely ironic that some of our most-renowned dishes – dishes you can pay a fortune for in three-star restaurants – are ultimately peasant food. Bouillabaisse, Boeuf Bourguignon, Choucroute and even sushi, like fondue, all began as poor peoples’ foods. But here’s the kicker: These deservedly famous foods began as peasant food because the ingredients, cooking techniques, and cooking equipment were indeed cheap in their place of origin. Bouillbaise is made from the fish that didn’t sell, which is cheap if you’re a fisherman in Marseilles but expensive if you’re a middle manager in Kansas – same with sushi. When you can trade the cheese or sausage you made from your own cows for a bottle of wine from your neighbor’s fields, wine is a cheap ingredient, but not when it has to be shipped in from California or the Rhine Valley.
Cassoulet is another famous French dish that began as peasant food. It includes duck confit, pancetta, and garlic sausage – expensive ingredients where I live. But it’s basically just another bean dish and it’s essence can be captured with a few deft ingredient choices for a fraction of the cost and effort. And for that matter, Boston Baked Beans (or the Southern Barbequed Beans) are home-grown and absolutely delicious local peasant foods. I adore macaroni and cheese, made from scratch with quality ingredients. I made that fondue because I owed a friend a special meal, and I’m too chintzy to take anyone out to dinner. Or for a fraction of the cost of fondue, try Welsh Rabbit. Same idea, another imported peasant food, but using domestic cheese, beer, and toast makes it cheap eats.
Want to go all-American? Make your own burgers – America’s ultimate peasant food. Burgers have moved into upscale restaurants and, if you wish, you could once blow $125 on ground meat on a bun at the Boca Raton Resort. Make your own and it will beat the hell out of any fast food joint. Ground beef, pork, turkey, even lamb are relatively cheap. Add a few spices and herbs and pay attention to what you’re cooking and you can eat a burger worth writing about.
I have the luxury – like agrarian peasants of yore – of working at home so I can devote time to cooking and slow-cooking intensifies flavors and tenderizes tough meat – pot roast is a classic American example. But these days you can buy a slow cooker pretty cheap and cook supper while you’re at work.
The lesson to be learned here: Make the best of what you can afford. Peasant food isn’t about eating fancy, it’s about eating well.
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