When Pam Mehnert declared that she was giving up on convenience foods for an entire year, some people thought she was crazy -- and maybe for good reason. Pam's got her hands full as general manager at Outpost Natural Foods in Milwaukee. But, like so many of us, Pam is also devoted to improving her community. Pam believes that, by changing her diet, she can take a more active role in revitalizing the local economy and lessening her dependence on processed foods.
But, how would she make it for an entire year -- baking her own bread, making her own tortillas, and giving up her reliance on pre-packaged foods?
Well, that's a good question. So, Pam started "A Year of Inconvenience," her own personal blog and food diary where she plans to share stories, wisdom, and thoughts on her year of "from scratch" eating.
We asked Pam if she'd take a few minutes to tell her a bit more about her project, and she willingly obliged.
We hope you're as moved by her real food journey as we are!
You've written that you were inspired by both Julie Powell and Michael Pollan to begin this challenge. Although you're not cooking your way through a cookbook, as Julie Powell did, what parallels do you see between her experience and the challenge you've created for yourself?
Without question, the biggest parallel would be the time it will take to fit the challenge into an already busy day, and how easily it can become your “job” taking it on. For Julie, it also sounded like her novice cooking experience combined with taking on the French culture of the recipes became overwhelming, not to mention experimenting with cooking techniques she wasn’t familiar with. That’s different for me, because already it’s more about “hunger” – that if I don’t prepare and plan out our meals – I’ll be left with few choices and sadly a very boring diet. If Julie Powell didn’t feel like cooking from the cookbook on any particular day – she could take a break from it. I however have to focus on what meals I’ll be preparing every single day. And yet, I’m still inspired because of her, but especially Michael Pollan.
I know that you love to cook (and eat). But, how much cooking did you do, on average, prior to the challenge? How many additional hours a week do you spend cooking now?
Before the challenge I would cook breakfast and dinner at home on average 4-5 days per week. Now what I refer to as “cooking” wasn’t always from scratch. We would take a frozen pizza and add our own toppings, or I might start a pot of chili using canned beans and tomatoes. Often it was a protein and vegetable – simple dinners that could be put together in just 30 to 45 minutes. Lunch, on the other hand, was almost always picking up something from Outpost’s prepared foods department – usually a salad or sandwich or soup.
A comparison of before the challenge and after, I’d say before I cooked on average 3-4 total hours/week and now it’s at least triple that amount of time. And I’m only in week two.
Do you have a strategy to help you get through the next 11 months? Have you purchased any special equipment for the challenge?
I’ve been thinking about the challenge ever since last summer, so I actually have been preparing my kitchen with a few items. I gave away my thrift store 1980 something KitchenAid mixer and purchased a new one around the holidays. I also had been buying storage jars at flea markets and antique stores late last summer and fall. Just this past week I spent $100 at my local Ace Hardware adding important items such as a kitchen thermometer, extra baking sheets, freezer storage containers, a silicone rolling mat (for baking), and believe it or not – a dish drainer. We’ve been doing a lot of dishes!
My strategy has been – prepare a menu for the week (lunch & dinner), keep staples items in stock (granola and bread in particular), make enough dinner to have as a lunch leftover, and use the freezer. The freezer is my friend.
What's been the most painful convenience food for you to give up? The easiest?
The most painful: Seriously, and this is a bit embarrassing, but it would have to be snack foods. Hungry after work and need to snack before dinner – I used to depend on crackers, tortilla chips, or nut mixes. Baked potato chips with my sandwich, or cheese puffs while watching television at night. It’s the snacks, and fruit and vegetables don’t always do the trick!
The easiest? I guess that would be bread. I don’t mind baking bread at all. The frequency will become a strain after awhile I’m sure, but I really do enjoy making it.
Are there any official "exceptions" that you're making for yourself during the challenge?
I’m really surprised no one has asked me this on the blog yet. Yes, actually there are a few.
First, if I get invited over to someone’s home for dinner, I will eat what they have to offer without scrutiny or judgment. That’s only polite. Second, I will eat out at restaurants but only under the condition that I’m invited by someone else (it can’t be a convenience because I don’t know what to make for dinner) AND for me it must be a locally owned restaurant (and not fast food local either). Someone else must have taken the time and care to make things from scratch. Third, at the beginning I’m not defining condiments as convenience foods. That means I will use some mustard or ketchup or mayonnaise on occasion. I do realize those things can be made from scratch, so I will eventually eliminate them from my exception list as I use up what I have. And finally, beverages to me are not convenience foods unless I use them in a convenient way. For example, I’ll brew coffee at home but I won’t stop at a coffee shop because I didn’t want to brew it at home. I’ll also drink beer, but will limit that whenever possible to local beer. I would like to try brewing beer on my own at some point.
I don’t know what I’m going to do when I travel. I travel at least four times a year for business meetings where I can’t cook and don’t have a kitchen, so I think I’ll just go with the flow on that. Vacations are also a question in my mind. I’m starting one next week going out to California, so I’ll report back on that experience.
What has the response been from your colleagues? Friends? Most importantly -- what does your spouse/significant other think of all of this?
I gave my domestic partner the option of opting out – and was met with the response – “I live in the same house, we eat the same meals, and I’m willingly supporting you with this.” Thank goodness, as it’s really been helpful having an extra set of hands with the cooking, not to mention she’s really great with researching recipes. My colleagues and friends all think I’m a bit crazy – but applaud my efforts I think because they are grateful it’s not them.
Pam Mehnert is general manager of Outpost Natural Foods and has been working at the co-op since 1980. Her passion for local food and local business led her and seven other Milwaukee businesses to found the organization Our Milwaukee in 2007, where she currently serves as board president as well as local business advocate. In her spare time Pam fuels her daily work by serving as president of the board of directors of the National Cooperative Grocers Association. Oh, and she loves to cook, garden, work on assemblage art, and take adventurous hikes with her partner Lisa.
Read more about Pam's Year of Inconvenience on her blog! She just came back from vacation, so I'm sure she'll appreciate the visitors!
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