Scavenging the Urban Jungle for Food

***Editor’s note: this article was written pre-COVID-19 lockdowns.

So, I’m not at home.

My family is on a forced internment inside the bowels of the fourth largest city in the U.S.  We’re here dealing with, and trying to work through, some pretty serious health issues of my husband’s.  I’m only sharing that to emphasize that we’d rather, at this juncture, be pretty much anywhere else right now: with Home of course ranking number one, and “tied nekkid to an ant hill“ ranked just above where we are.

Being trapped here, we’ve had to Do As the Natives Do: deal with the noise, the traffic, the tap water that stinks of seaweed, and the most horrifying City Routine of all—the watching of network morning television.

Yes, during the hours that I am normally outside feeding and watering critters and (depending on the day and the season) getting rained on, shivering, sweating, being bitten by zillions of skeeters OR relishing a perfect day, breathing deeply the scents of wildflowers, good earth, or any variety of poop, giving kisses on the nosie, being chased by rabid roos or getting stepped on and mashed against the stall wall (we’ll assume by accident), I was missing some vital information… AND I DIDN’T EVEN KNOW IT.

Some things I’m now hearing are foreign to me due to location—we’re flat not-big-city folks.  It never occurred to me that I needed one perfect Little Black Dress; how name-brand fashions could be acquired on The Cheap (although their version of “cheap” for one outfit usually totals my entire family’s clothing budget for a year or so); why a certain type of footwear is considered Must-Have, even though to my hayseed eyes they look unsuitable and far too flimsy for navigating muddy terrain more than once.

A lot of things I’m now hearing are foreign to me due to my heretofore unknown social deprivation regarding the world of television.  Here’s what I foolishly thought: television is something you watch if there’s nothing to do, nothing to read, nowhere to go, and no one to talk to.  Therefore I don’t know most of the morning show guests: reality(?)-show participants, sports figures, pretty much any musician or weekly-series character.

But nothing—NOTHING—has blown me completely out of my socks like finding out that, despite earning quite a bit more money than I’ll ever hope to, and despite navigating adroitly through the maze of civilization every day, and despite working at highly technical and complex occupations, city folk have no earthly idea of what they should eat.


Just the other day, the teaser for a following segment started out with, “Americans eat way too much salt.  If we could reduce our intake of salt by just 10%, we could prevent 10,000 heart attacks every year.”

Once into the meat of the matter, we learned that Americans really aren’t that heavy-handed with the salt shakers—a mere 6% of our salt intake comes via the shaker onto cooked foods at the table, but that 77% of our salt intake comes directly contained in all the processed foods we eat.

Here’s where it got weird.

When the Expert D’jour was asked what we could do to rectify this situation, I shook my head in smiling disbelief since it was so obvious.

She looked comfortingly at the camera and said, “Well, we’re very excited about the new regulations requiring manufacturers to limit the amount of added salt to processed foods.”


No, wait.

The opposite of “We eat too much salt-laden, fake food” is NOT “Stop eating salt-laden, fake food”???

How is that possible?

How can a Professional Nutritionist stand in front of Katie Couric, God, and Everybody and say with a straight face and clear heart that the answer to our dependence on processed foods is… different processed foods?

That the commercials bracketing this Twilight Zone segment were for PopTarts and Ensure was not encouraging.

Is it true that people don’t know HOW to eat food?  That our society is so far removed from where food comes from that it’s gone from our genetic memory and taste buds?

(I’m going to start giving real unprocessed food the dignity of being capitalized from here on out.  It’s the least I can do for it.)

I know it took my husband some months before being able to taste Food without salting it and our entire family has a real problem with the saltiness of restaurant food, fast food in particular.

Here’s the great thing about Food.  It comes right from it’s source(s) almost perfect standing alone; in the case of fruits and vegetables, most often just washed and eaten—although some veggies do shine after being lightly steamed or sautéed in olive oil (if you’re feeling particularly devilish, sauté in butter. Real butter—from cows—not a fake butter-like-substance from a laboratory).

Same for meat.  Or Dairy products.  Or grains.  All can be purchased much more inexpensively than their processed counterparts and turned into menu items for tasty consumption with little or no flourish or skill.

“I don’t know how you find the time to cook from scratch”.

“I never learned how to cook”.

“I’m a total disaster in the kitchen: the only thing I can do is read directions and nuke stuff”.

Balderdash to all the above statements.

Let’s take as an example the ever-popular Blue Box of Mac ‘N’ Cheese.

It contains: noodles, and a package of orange dust.  It costs: anywhere from 50 cents (on sale) to a dollar (not on sale).

Directions are: boil water (it tells you to SALT the water—don’t do it), cook noodles, drain, and stir in the orange dust, BUTTER and MILK.

Serving size per package: about 3.

Go to the store. Buy a generic bag of noodles (bottom shelf): generally less than a dollar, on sale or not.  Now, buy the store brand of shredded cheddar cheese: an 8 ounce package is under $2.00 even here in metropolitan Houston.  For a truly rustic touch, get a block of cheddar and shred it yourself—with a cheese grater.  Pick up the butter and milk you’d need to make the box stuff anyway.

Boil the water, cook half the noodles, drain and stir in butter, milk and a couple handfuls of the shredded cheese.

Serving size: about 3, and you’ll get another round with the ingredients you’ve purchased.

What you will have is Food that tastes good and contains things you know to be healthy and that you’ve put together yourself.  What you won’t get is any extra salt, orange food coloring, and stuff we probably don’t want to know about lurking in the orange dust.

Prep time for either recipe: exactly the same.

How hard is that?

So, how to get from “processed food dependence” to eating real Food even if you’re not on the farm yet?

In the days before NutriSystem and Weight Watchers, when we wanted to lose weight we were told to Shop the Perimeter.  Don’t venture into the center of the grocery store except for dried grains, baking ingredients, pastas and spices.  All the real Food is on the edges: produce, dairy, meats.

In the produce department shop seasonally; it will cost less and the food will be fresher.  Only buy berries in spring or fall, corn and beans in summer, etc. Barring a decent selection in the produce department (our home town grocery has a butcher and meat selection people drive miles to buy from but can’t keep lettuce alive to save their souls), select frozen veggies—just veggies—not sauced, seasoned, trussed up in plastic serving sizes or otherwise processed. Cook ‘em up with a little olive oil or butter—no salt needed.

In season, if at all possible, shop the farmers’ market.  The produce will taste wildly different from the grocery store in a very good, and good for you, way.

Buy whole chickens instead of cut up; use a kitchen shears to hack ‘em apart—they’re quartered for Pete’s sake, it ain’t hard.

Leave the chicken whole and roast it: insert half an apple (for moisture) and half an onion (for flavor), rub it with olive oil and pepper it.  Then you have a salt-free, home-broasted chicken.  Do the same with turkey except use a whole apple and onion.  Turkey is a highly under-used meat.  Off season, turkeys can be purchased for almost as cheaply as a chicken—keep your eyes open.

Take the carcass and either slow roast it (or use your crock pot): cover with water and cook on very, very low overnight.  Then remove the bones and other inedibles (a strainer works nicely) and add noodles and veggies (frozen-mixed is good) and cook till the noodles and veggies are tender.  You’ll have at least 3 cartons of soup to freeze AFTER you eat your fill.

One bottle of steak marinade with the photo of a chef on it: $4.00.  Olive oil (should already be on your shelf), a lemon and several cloves of garlic: $2.00 tops.  Marinade meat for about 30 minutes and grill.  No salt or preservatives and very tasty.

Most things can be cooked from scratch very easily.  I do cheat a little bit and use baking mix (Pioneer, tastes better than Bisquick and less salt and additives) and keep several boxes of it in the freezer.  Just with that and stuff like milk, butter, eggs, vanilla, cocoa powder—things we have anyway—I can make cakes, pancakes, biscuits, dumplings, cobblers… See?  One box instead of four boxes that instruct a person to “add vegetable oil” (ewww), and one cardboard tube to smack against the counter and peel apart the disks of gelatinous goo inside (double ewww).

Desserts come with their own mystique.  There really are people who can cook but not bake, and vice versa.  Any recipe that calls for “flour, salt and baking power or soda” can be made using the baking mix instead of all those.  If something calls for vegetable oil ONLY (not vegetable oil OR butter), use olive oil.  It would seem that there would be a flavor problem, but we’ve never noticed it.

I’ve been told I make a mean apple pie, and I’ll share the recipe here.  It takes literally 30 minutes to prepare; I’ll start dinner cooking, put the pie together and let it bake while we’re eating.

Pie Filling:

  • 5 medium apples
  • 1/3 c. sugar
  • 1/3 c. brown sugar
  • 2 tbsp. unbleached flour
  • 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp. nutmeg

Peel and slice apples and place in a large bowl.  Stir in remaining ingredients.

Pie Crust:

  • 2 c. unbleached flour
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 3/4 c. butter, softened
  • 5-6 tbsp. water

Blend together with a fork the softened butter, flour and salt just till it resembles large crumbs; stir water in quickly and gently till it barely holds together.  The key is not to overwork the dough.

Roll half out between floured sheets of waxed paper; line pie plate and trim so it’s got a 1/4 inch overhang.

Pour in filling.

Roll out other half like the first; place on top of pie and trim to 1/4 inch overhang.

Tuck top crust under bottom crust, flute to seal and poke several holes in center with a fork.

Bake for about 45 minutes at 425, till golden brown.

Eat while still hot, topped with whipped cream.  NOT stuff in a can, or Lord help us, Cool Whip, but that little carton between the milk and sour cream—the one that says “whipping cream”, that stuff.  Shake the carton, pour it into a bowl and use a hand mixer to whip it.  Add just a smidge of sugar (real sugar, not artificial sweetener) and in about six minutes you’ll have a topping to die for.  Add a drop of vanilla (real vanilla extract, not “flavoring”) if you want total devotion from your family.

Cost of that nasty pre-formed pie crust next to the tubes of biscuit goo: about $3.00 (I’m guessing. I won’t touch even the box). Cost of a can of pie filling: about the same (ditto). Cool Whip or other abomination: also ditto. So just under $10.00 for a “homemade” pie.

Cost of making a REAL homemade pie: crust (all stuff you probably have anyway): free.  Pie filling: less than $5.00 depending on the cost of apples. Whipped cream: under $2.00.

So, about $7.00 for something that will cause the heavens to open and the angels to sing while you eat it.

Re-reading and proofing this article, a little voice poked me in the eye and noted that I sound like a Food Snob. I’ll admit it, I am.

I want Food to taste good, and be good for my family.  I demand that the ingredients are fresh and as few steps away from being animals and plants as they can possibly be.

I may not own the elusive Little Black Dress and have no clue as to who is paired with who on Dancing With the Stars, but in our family we buy, prepare, and eat Food, and enjoy every delicious bite of it—even in the dark wastelands of Houston.


  1. I totally enjoyed reading your article. This is how I grew up mostly cooking and have till this day. We eat very processed food. I could do better. My Dad had a HUGE garden growing up and we had chickens for eggs. We were eating organic without knowing we were eating organic! My family live in NW Houston so space is stil lacking for a garden and we can’t have chickens But thinking ahead with my last child graduating high school in 5 years, I vow to move to an area with a little more land so I can regain some of that hard worked, delightful home grown food. In the meantime, I make the healthy unprocessed choices in the grocery store around the corner as I bounce through the crowded aisles. Definitely not my favorite way of spending time. But you’ve got me excited again for the future !

  2. “It contains noodles and orange dust” made me I read it three times. Ha ha ha. I am likeminded about food and really enjoyed this article, thank you for sending it out. I can’t help but believe your desire and effort o help people is successful though you may not hear about it. Please keep on!

  3. What’s the point of the editor’s note that this is a pre-COVID article? I thoroughly enjoyed the tone and content of the article, absolutely agreeing with the author’s sentiments about how folks have been basically brainwashed about how and what to eat. The content is true no matter what era it passed in. Is it because the husband is dealing with an unnamed sickness (like folks have done throughout all of time?) Not sure why you put that note there, but it is absolutely uneccessary and distrcting.

    1. Hi Frank. Thanks for your comment.

      We included this article in our email newsletter during the height of COVID lockdowns all over the US. Because the author comes out of the gate talking about not being home and the travel they had to do recently, we decided it was best, at the time, to add the note. Now that that time has (hopefully) passed us all, we will remove the note.

      Take care.

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