Saturday, November 5, 2022

There Are American Food Deserts, and Then There Are American Food Deserts

Food deserts are usually thought to be areas in the U.S in which it's difficult to buy fresh produce, fruits and vegetables, and other healthy food items. Large swathes of urban communities whose economic base is marginal, and many rural areas, experience this problem. You're lucky in those areas if you have access — often miles from where you live — to a big superstore like Wal-Mart, which may or may not have a smattering of fresh produce for you to buy. Or you're lucky if you have access to a fried chicken or hamburger chain, an unhealthy fast-food option. 

Otherwise, you're out of luck. You eat what you can buy, that "what" is usually not healthy.

What I'm thinking about today is how other areas not conventionally tagged as food deserts actually are food deserts. I posted here a day or so ago about friends who came to visit us on Wednesday. Yesterday (Friday), we drove them from Little Rock to Bentonville in northwest Arkansas, so that they could rendezvous with their older son and his partner, an art historian who currently has a research fellowship at Crystal Bridges.

On previous visits to this part of the state, we've noticed how hard it is to find edible meals. The irony is that this corner of Arkansas is experiencing tremendous economic growth. Major corporations like Wal-Mart and Tyson are located here. People are rapidly moving here from all over the place to find work. There's lots of money here, and money usually brings more choices when it comes to finding good food options.

The problem is, however, that most of the food options are chain restaurants, many of them fast-food places. And the "top-end" restaurants, which are proliferating, especially in proximity to Wal-Mart headquarters where many affluent managerial types live, are quite frankly abominable. They're pricey, but the food is simply horrible.

We ate at one such place last evening. Almost every entrée on the menu was priced over $30. By Arkansas standards, that's pricey. It should buy you good food. 

Since our friends insisted on paying, I chose the least expensive dinner items I could find on the menu, a bowl of pinto beans with cornbread crumbled over it, and a bowl of grits with cream and scallions added to it. Each was outrageously expensive, considering what was being served: $8 for each small bowl. 

Our waitperson made a rude comment when I ordered those items, asking if I was sure that's all I wanted, and saying something — beyond ill-mannered! — about how I'd be all "blown up" with gas after eating beans. She may have seen from my expression that I did not receive that "jocularity" well, since she later came by, patted me on the shoulder, and said the beans are her favorite things on the menu.

We waited an hour for six plates to be prepared. The others had either tiny bits of steak or fish, or, in one case, a concoction of chickpea flour and cabbage that was, from the waitress's description, "like cake" — sweet. We were served squares of cornbread to tide us over, with little pots of butter whipped with sorghum molasses.

The cornbread was, blessedly, not sweetened, but the molasses-butter was evidently there because most Americans including contemporary Southerners expect cornbread to be sweet. M.F.K. Fisher got the traditional idea of cornbread in Arkansas, at least, right when she wrote, 

One thing that makes good corn bread difficult to get is regional prejudice. A man from Arkansas blanches, for example, at the thought of putting molasses on his dodger like a Missourian, and instead wants it buttered, or plain with a dish of black-eyed peas and sowbelly. And he wants it made of white meal, not yellow. 

~ M.F.K. Fisher, “Spoon Bread and Moonlight” in A Stew or a Story: An Assortment of Short Works by M. F. K. Fisher, Joan Reardon, ed. (Emeryville, CA: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2006), p. 166.

Everything about that statement — the blanching at sweetened cornbread; the absolute preference for white and not yellow cornmeal; the understanding that cornbread is meant to be a savory accompaniment to savory beans or field peas or vegetables — is correct, vis-a-vis traditional Arkansas culture, except for one item: growing up in Arkansas, I never heard tell of a corn dodger. I'm not even sure what that word means. I presume it refers to a version of what my family called either hot-water cornbread or fried cornbread: white cornmeal mixed with a bit of salt and some boiling water, then patted into cakes that were fried in vegetable oil or bacon grease, to be eaten with vegetables and beans.

The cornbread on which we munched last evening as we waited an hour for our meal — in a restaurant in Arkansas — was, if unsweetened, still made with yellow cornmeal and lots of flour. It did not have the delicious corn flavor of my family's cornbread made with white cornmeal, egg, buttermilk, vegetable oil or bacon grease, a bit of salt and baking soda, and baked in a pre-heated black iron skillet until it's brown and crunchy on the outside. This is the kind of cornbread I make. Always.

My point here: there's surely good, traditional country cooking to be found somewhere in places like Arkansas, but good luck finding any version of that cooking in restaurants in places like northwest Arkansas, even when said restaurants offer "sophisticated" versions of country cooking. For top dollar. 

I honestly don't know where you go in this part of Arkansas to find good food — except to the wonderful hole-in-the-wall "ethnic" restaurants operated by, say, the many Latin American and Mexican immigrants flocking to this area. We've found those restaurants, unpretentious, plain, wonderful, the best places by far to eat in this area.

Which is, despite its growing affluence, a version of a food desert, as far as I'm concerned….

P.S. The photo above: a "quiche" served at the free breakfast buffet at our hotel this morning. Whoever dropped it on the sidewalk made a wise choice. I bit into mine and found it simply inedible, tarted-up eggs cooked in a circular form until dry, with no salt and some kind of obtrusive, unpleasant chemical-laden seasoning. The other alternative was a "croissant" with eggs and "ham" on it. A real croissant is, as anyone who has had the good fortune to encounter one, redolent of good butter, with a crusty exterior that breaks into shards as you break it open. What we were served as a croissant this morning was an unappetizing glob of sweet, cottony dough with something approximating ham and eggs cooked in a form inserted into the center of the dough.

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