In Defense of Lowbrow Chow

Excuse me, would you mind passing the cranberry jelly?  Yes please, that one which is shaped like a can.

Gasp!!!  What?  You would never let such an abomination pass your lips?

Well, that's a shame.

Let me break this to you gently.  You are a food snob.

And don't go and pat yourself on the back for it in a smug moment of self-righteousness.

Have no doubt about it, your sneering attitude is bad food karma.  It makes this world a bit less fun, and is contributing to the tailspin of our collective relationship to food.

You know me well enough by now to know that I live largely upon wild foods.  My day to day meals consist of wild meats, vegetables, and fruits, supplemented by store-bought starches and good dairy.  Sometimes I combine these things into fancy dishes, but most of the time they are simple and rustic.  I am a huge champion of wholesome home-cooked meals, and sustainable ways of eating.

So how is it, you ask, that I am defending lowly canned cranberry jelly?

First off, let me say that tinned cranberry sauce is delightful.  It adds a unifying texture and delightful tang to every part of a Thanksgiving meal.  Delicious stuff.

Ok, you honestly don't agree with me.  That's fine.  There is plenty of room for a range of opinions and tastes when it comes to food. And in a way, that's precisely my point.  Eating is a highly subjective experience which is colored by so much more than just nutrition and our five senses.  Nostalgia, heritage, comfort, and communion are also a part of the experience of eating.  Think back to your best food memories.  Are they soley about the food, or do you also remember the setting, the people you were with, the climate and the mood of the moment?

So, what if I were to tell you that my fondest food memory is of canned cranberry jelly, of sitting at my Grandmother's knee at the Thanksgiving table - fullness, family, food, warmth permeating my every cell?  If that were true, how do you think I would feel when you turned up your nose at that cranberry sauce, and made disparaging comments?  Well of course I'd take it personally, because it would chip away at the shine of those memories.

This is why a huge segment of the population bristles when foodies and food police start in on one of their rants.  What you are eating is horrible, it isn't nutritious enough, your children will be deformed, it's going to give you heart disease and cancer, and you will be pumped full of medication and die sick and alone!  It is personal, and there is a stinging undercurrent of judgment and elitism.  It makes people feel reactionary and defensive.  They dig their heels in, sing la-la-la, and vow to go on eating frozen meals, margarine, and fast food.

When it comes down to it, the fear factor isn't going to get people, as a whole, to eat better.  Instead, it's going to be a shared enthusiasm about greatness in food.  Honesty about what tastes good, and respect for all palates, are what will open up a dialog and make it possible for a greater segment of the population to feed themselves well.

We've forgotten how to indulge, how to celebrate, how to share the pure love of the experience of eating.

A few years back, a bunch of big studies came out about how dark chocolate is good for you.  And now, how often to you hear people declare that every day, they let themselves have one square of dark chocolate?  It's ok to say it out loud, even to be proud.

Oh see, it's still deep inside of us, that yearning to let go and just revel in food, but the shoulds keep pulling us back.  And so people let themselves have their square of chocolate, not because it's what they truly want (and I'm not saying that there aren't people who genuinely like chocolate), but because someone has given them permission, and they wear their badge with pride.

This constant push and pull, the cycle of punishment and reward is insidious.  I've gotta say that I'd far prefer to see you tilt back your head and pound a few squirts of Cheez Whiz with absolute relish than I would see you post a status update about your sanctified square of dark chocolate.

An attitude of fear surrounding diet, even if it is dressed up in the guise of nutritional-correctness, is far more toxic to a body than a happy bite of lowbrow chow.

Mark my words, it ain't the political activists that are gonna save the food scene, it's the hedonistic food geeks.  It's the people who strip eating of rules and that sour-tasting Puritanical ethic.  It's the people who will take a bite of roasted pastured chicken and simple farm-fresh vegetables, roll their eyes back in their head, let out a scream of ecstasy, and offer a bite to anyone who is nearby.  Those are the people who are gonna take wholesome real foods back to the masses, back to the people who are stuck between the hard rocks of economics and nutritionalism.

So on this holiday of gratitude, respect all tastes.  Don't be a turkey, let your enthusiasm for delicious food be infectious.  And while you're at it, could you pass me some of that yummy canned cranberry jelly?!

I'm sharing this post with Gallery of Favorites.


  1. I so agree. I would rather not think of the ingredients today at all. I have to, though, to keep my son from accidentally ingesting gluten and making himself sick. :P But I myself am just going to eat what's there. If it's made with Smart Balance, perhaps I will survive? At any rate, it's better than being a jerk to my kind hosts. What goes into the heart is so much more important than what goes into the stomach.

  2. Hi Sheila. I'm a celiac, so I can sympathize.

    I don't have any food in my house which contains hfcs (or should I say "corn sugar!"), and when I do buy meat, I try to always support local farmers who care deeply about their animals. It's pretty clear what my food politics are. But it seems to me that a lot of the time, this community is pretty small, and we're not succeeding at getting the message to a larger audience.

    I once took someone to dinner at my mom's, and he declined to eat most of the meal because her food wasn't organic, etc. Let's just say that little incident did nothing to change her mind about eating margarine and industrial chicken.

    I want to see the gap to people like my mom, and my aunt, and my neighbors bridged. And I think that shared love of good, tasty food is the way to get there.

    Think of all of the tv chefs that are so successful at promoting real foods - Paula Deen and her love of butter, the many chefs who proclaim their love of bacon. That love, that excitement opens a lot of minds and doors, and can pave the way to further discussions about why these things are good, why animals who have led natural happy lives are better, how we can encourage deep nourishment and sustain populations with this approach to food.

  3. hey butter! sooo agree with you! its so much more about the LOVE! happy thanksgiving and so grateful for YOU! Alex!

  4. two big thumbs up..i couldn't agree more

  5. Great Post Butter!
    Happy Thanksgiving to you!!! It's only fair to admit that I can be a food snob some times but I definetly indulge when I feel like it and I never ever feel guilty afterward! It would defeat the purpose, We've all got our canned jelly somewhere. If you felt bad after plesure...well you've got a problem...Happiness is the road!!
    We just had last night one of the best Thanksgiving meals in years, a gathering of few but so real and happy and yummy and fun I do hope you'll enjoy your day!

  6. Hi AH! Wonderful to hear that your celebrated Thanksgiving with joy.

    I hear ya. We've all got our canned jelly somewhere. Yesterday, I posted on facebook, asked people what their favorite lowbrow chow was. I got an avalanche of responses - mac 'n' cheese, corn dogs, nachos, Velveeta, pb & j's, and more.

    My favorite chef has a deep love of Miller High Life. And being real about loving a particularly un-fancy food makes me trust his opinion so much more.

    We live in this fantastic modern world stripped of some of the barriers of the past, and part of the joy of that is in tasting it all, in exploring and having fun treats. Just because I deeply value sources of food which respect both land and animal, doesn't mean that I won't squeal with delight when you place a few candy corn into my hand. There's no contradiction there, just honesty and humanity.

  7. You rock. Awesome much needed post that I'll spread wide and far. :-)

  8. Just TRY to pry Cheez-its out of my hands. I will fight to the death. For those and other similar culinary delights. You'll appreciate this, my birthday present while interning in Italy:

  9. This is a wonderful, wonderful post, and I couldn't agree more! Thank you for such a powerful, sensible, well written piece - it's something that needed saying and you said it beautifully. I'm so pleased you shared it with the Gallery of Favorites. And just for the record I absolutely love canned cranberry jelly - it has all sorts of marvellous memories attached to it. It's hard to come by here in England and when I managed to get a can of it this year for our Canadian Thanksgiving celebration in October I can't tell you how pleased the whole family was!

  10. Butter, I have to admit that, after experiencing first-hand your culinary expertise and that of Hank Shaw and the, I have been more than a little intimidated to come up with my own "lowbrow chow" recipes for the Wild Things RoundUp, as I am most certainly an invent-as-I-go, know-nothing-about-fancy-cuisine kind of girl. I needed THIS entry. Cheers to you and your canned cranberry sauce.

  11. Kate - Indeed, that is love!

    April - Thank you so much, I'm very interested in opening up this discussion. I'd love to know what more people think on the subject.

    Erica - Aw, I'd never want to intimidate anyone with my style of cooking. Mostly, I want to show what is *possible* when I'm cooking, especially when working with wild foods for the Wild Things round up. But I promise, most of the food I cook is fairly simple and straightforward. I love to see nice, basic recipes for Wild Things. It makes for such a lovely and well-rounded mix, and help to accomplish the goal of inspiring all sorts of different people to cook with forage.

  12. i needed this post more than most. i'm new to Real Foods and as everyone knows, the new convert is the most fanatical. i've got to learn to chill out and not fret over the non-organic spice blend i'm throwing on my grass-fed roast. thanks for a reminder about reality!

  13. Three cheers, a few shouts of "Yes!"and a small tear from this reader. Well said.

  14. This came to me, indirectly, from Julia - Apropos, non?

  15. I love the cranberry sauce from a can! It's delish :)

  16. You know me, I like to comment way past post date - lol - this post so reminds me of the beginning of the HnS hop discussions. I do the best I can and leave the rest to God. We eat mostly clean but you know, my kids love frozen pizza (and so do I)and the occasional kraft mac and cheese. And my guilty pleasure is sweetened condensed milk - my grandma ate it from a spoon and I lived with her for awhile when I was very young. To me it is the ultimate comfort food!
    I think of you often!
    with love,

  17. Molly Wizenberg talks about the (if I remember correctly) plastic bottle of syrup with the crusty sugar bits on the lid that she remembers in her fridge growing up in her book A Homemade Life. Her family was very crunchy/health conscious but always had that bottle. She remembered it fondly.

    I totally agree and thank you for putting words to the vague idea that had been floating around in my brain. :)

    1. It really is nice to hear other people share my perspective. Sometimes I get so frustrated by food snobbery, which seems to be so much less about food than it is some sort of weird moral superiority, or status.

  18. Yes! Praise this. We need more of this attitude, and less lipping off. It only alienates the people the whole/slow foods movement is trying to reach.

  19. I run in circles where people are foodies. I agree with so many of the issues they are passionate about. But there are some times when I think they have just lost their minds, lost all sense. Good for you for writing this.

    1. That's just it, a loss of sense, of common sense. More and more, I find myself playing devil's advocate when someone goes food crazy on me, and it isn't even because I disagree with their overall philosophies.

  20. This is refreshing, and just what I need to see before heading to my in-laws for Thanksgiving. Sometimes I get so caught up in my food politics that I forget that there are times I just have to ease up and enjoy the moment, like when my aunt passes me the bowl of her lovingly-made green jello "salad" LOL.

  21. I'm printing this one out!

  22. Nice reality check. Thank you!

  23. Oh my goodness, you must be in the Midwest. I learned at an early age that if someone in my Gran's home state offered me salad, they didn't mean greens, but jello with some manner of strangeness in it - cottage cheese, pears, grated carrots. Too cute!


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