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May 22, 2007 11:42 PM

Thoughts on the evolution of "Peasant Food?"

It's kind of interesting to see how "peasant food" from many regions globally manifests itself into pricier dishes in other parts of the world. And when I say peasant, I don't mean it as a negative thing. Maybe "native" or "local" would be less pejorative - but still dishes familiar and affordable to most in certain regions. For example:

- Italian: Flour + water + cheap local ingredient = affordable pasta dish for everyday familes over decades. In most major cities these days, a fancy restaurant might offer a simple pasta dish for $15 and many would hardly raise an eyebrow. Note: I'm not talking about a dish with an extravigant ingredient - just basic stuff.

- Mexican: Beans, rice & something can cost next to nothing or cost a good deal depending on location - and the price is often inverse to taste/authenticity.

- Thai. If Pad Thai is a barometer dish, then I'm not sure why some places have a great offering for $3.99 while others are $15.

On the flip side, these might be underpirced:

- Indian. In Western cities, the dishes might be dumbed down or served buffet style, but even then you can get stuffed with great food for little cost. Ever tried to make Indian at home? You'll need a about 30 spices for one dish! For that reason alone I give them props.

- Chinese. Very diverse. Often very dumbed down. But even at the most authetic places, very inexpensive for the quality and variety of food.

- Vietnamese. Stunningly good and almost always stunningly priced, even in the priciest of cities, Downtown LA, San Fran, etc. you can get a killer lunch for under $5. In fact, a Vietnamese place sparked this whole disucssion. Fellow hounds wondered aloud if there wasn't some "danger" in eating cheap, ethnic eats.

Far from it. I simply wonder if it's a question of supply & demand, plus marketing and familiarity. In any case, are there any other cuisines where you wonder about the current prices versus original intent?

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    1. All those fancy sauces in French food were developed to cover up the bad taste of the cheap/poor cuts of meat the peasants had to deal with. Yet many americans think of french food as very upper crust and it tends to be expensive!

      12 Replies
      1. re: NewSushiFiend

        That is not true.... French sauce making tradition comes from their haute tradition with a number of outside influences including Italian, Spanish & Mesoamerican among others. Most sauce making comes from highly developed culinary traditions not some backward availability of ingredients.

        1. re: Eat_Nopal

          A chef of French Cuisine has assured me that at least some of the things we think of as fancy french sauces did, indeed, come out of the efforts of peasants making bad cuts of meat more palitable. When you see a recipe using easy to get in France ingredients (not talking truffles!), you are probably looking at one that originated with peasants.

          I wouldn't be surprised, however, if the receipes were updated over time to make them "fancier".

          1. re: NewSushiFiend

            What according to you & that chef is a bad cut of meat that needs to be covered up with a sauce to be more pallatable?

            If I understand correctly... one of the major contributions of French traditional cooking is superior beef. They evolved (over many centuries) the Limantour breed that is considered (by those in the know) to be superior in flavor to either Angus or Kobe.

            1. re: Eat_Nopal

              What ever the rich people didn't want to eat. The french also developed perfume because they didn't bathe often.

              Your use of the term "backward availability" of ingredients seems to imply you don't think much of peasant food. I think one of the points of this thread is that some great food has come from peasants. We should honor people of the past who came up with great ways to cook, regardless of origin. You don't have to go to cooking school to be good.

              1. re: NewSushiFiend

                I don't dismiss "peasant food" or other foods of humble origins at all. As a matter of fact I can remember many a street / market meal that blows away most stuff I've had in fancy restaurants.

                However, I think you are misusing the term Peasant Food... and certainly mischaracterizing what French peasants actually cooked & ate. And completely mischaracterizing the quality of meats.

                First, Peasant is a self sustained horticulturalists. Someone who grows & consumes their own food and just about everything else. While a farmer is someone who grows food professionally for sale in a market & specializes in just a few crops... a such has to also purchase many products & services. In Europe, particulary France... the peasant class always struggled to make ends meet & rarely could afford for the matriarch to exclusively take care of the home & kitchen. Most matriarchs also worked in the fields & other activities. As a result French peasant cooking... much of which still exists as Cuisine d'terroir was very simple & did not involve much sophisticated saucemaking.

                When people go to a French restaurant to pay big bucks, they are typically consuming food that decended from France's palace cuisine tradition of the Rococo era.... which originated from imported Italian, Greek & Spanish cooks... and then it involved into a distinct French national haute cuisine.

                Finally, with respects to meat quality... so if rich French people bid up goose livers... but rich Southerners wouldn't get near them... is Goose liver a high quality meat or a low quality meat?

                1. re: NewSushiFiend

                  "The french also developed perfume because they didn't bathe often. "
                  Ummm, not quite. Look to Ancient Egypt and Rome and Arabia for the development of perfumes. And in the Western world, Hungary was before Italy and France in the development of modern perfume. Although I will give you the fact that Frenchmen and women used it to mask body odors.


                  And while I don't know a lot about it, I would have to agree with EatNopal re: the origination of sauces - they weren't made by peasants to cover up poor cuts of meat. The peasants wouldn't have had time to create "sauces" if they were working the fields or tending their animals or doing whatever work they were required to do for the nobles. The cuts of meat available to them, what little they might have been able to buy if they didn't butcher one of their own animals, would have been made palatable by long, slow braises, something that could be tended by a younger child on occasion while the parents were working. But I certainly don't see peasants spending the time to make the French "mother sauces", which came about/were named in the 18th century.

                  1. re: NewSushiFiend

                    "What ever the rich people didn't want to eat. The french also developed perfume because they didn't bathe often."

                    Both the sauce for bad meat thing and the perfume thing are common and widely spread stories, but neither is true.

                    1. re: andytee

                      Ascribing it to the French is not correct, but otherwise both are true.

                  2. re: Eat_Nopal

                    I think both you and NewSushiFiend have merits to your views - you folks just happen to be running along side each other and might not know it. Both of your assessments are correct - it's just a matter of where you stood in the socio-economic tier in France before the Post-Industrial Age. You may recall a little bump in the historical road for the French - the French Revolution. The standard of living for most was horrid, while the privileged lived lifestyles that are hard to even fathom today. The increasing disperity between rich and poor widened to the point of, well, revolution.

                    The importance of this time in French history is to relate it back to the stances of you two posters. What may be hard for most of us to comprehend is the level of "bad" that bad cuts of meat back then implies. Rancid and spoiled meat were the rule for most in urban areas, as access to fresh meat was rare - they didn't live on farms. Also, the standard of living for most was at a scale of what we would consider Third World today. To afford meat alone was a major proposition. The best cuts were already purchased by the more well-off. Also, places that served food had little in means of preserving meat. They had to be creative in making bad seem good. Thus, the creative aspect of enterprise (think value-added) was fertile ground for creating sauces and stews.

                    Conversely, those assuming the life of luxury had opposite issues to contend with. "Hmmm... this bernaise sauce on my filet mignon is getting boring. I don't care how much butter and eggs goes into this sauce - make me something different, something that will make my tastebuds sing, or off with your head! And while you're at it, send word throughout the countryside - I will pay a king's ransom to anyone who can breed me a bovine whose flesh tastes of ambrosia..."

                    I think you're both right... like alot of things in life, it's a matter of perspective.

                    1. re: bulavinaka

                      Well the French must have been extremely culinarily backward because there are so many examples of successful meat butchering facilities WITHIN cities.

              2. re: NewSushiFiend

                All opinions and histories could be valid. There's a tradition of preserving food. Traditions for enhancing, covering up, fillling in, etc.

                Heck, Lobster was considered vermin and fed to prisoners because it was so cheap and plentiful back in the day.

                1. re: tastyjon

                  My understanding is that the french sauce tradition comes from burgeois cooks, probably hired help, that had to make something better out of what they had. this sounds like something that would originate in a city to cover up the fact that the meat is not the freshest.

              3. Jon... don't know what Mexican food you might get where you live. In California... throw it under the underpriced category... not only are the ingredients lists often extensive, requiring good quality fresh produce (at least in authentic Mexican restaurants) as well as lots of herbs, chiles & some spices... but it is also one of the most, if not the most labor intensive cuisine on the planet.

                Go home & try making a Chile Relleno in Tomatoe-Epazote sauce and hand made corn tortillas from scratch... and then lets see what you think of the $5ish price tag you would normally pay around here for something like that.

                2 Replies
                1. re: Eat_Nopal

                  I agree and disagree and appreciate your input. And just to note - I've lived the past 15 years in LA, San Diego and Arizona with many a trip South, so I'm not a virgin.

                  There are fantastic, 20 ingredient moles out of Mexico. There are great eateries in the US and Mexico turning out incredible fare at all price ranges. The best tacos I've had in years were discovered recently at a dive in a run down part of PHX.

                  But you've got to admit that there are way too many places that lop a side of beans/rice on a plate and then wrap some cheese in corn tortillas, pour on some blah sauce, and call it a combo dish worth $7.99

                  1. re: tastyjon

                    "But you've got to admit that there are way too many places that lop a side of beans/rice on a plate and then wrap some cheese in corn tortillas, pour on some blah sauce, and call it a combo dish worth $7.99"

                    Maybe but I would never be party to such sacrilege! That is not really Mexican cooking I know. However, what I am alerting you to... is that there is a mindset that certain foods should be cheap because the ingredients aren't particularly expensive... completely ignoring the preperation & even research/knowledge portion of the equation.

                    Let's take the classic Chile Relleno that is soufled & sauced. In that incarnation it is a dish the was created in a 17th century convent in New Spain (Puebla)... that is the cultural equivalent of something created by the Royal French cooks. Because the typical grassroots Mexican cook is so skilled... we have a dish that in France would only be attempted in at nicer restaurants.... but we can find it in almost any humble village.

                    Now since it can be made by many Mexican cooks & the ingredients aren't particularly expensive... market pressures keep pushing the allowable price down. So now what do we get? A batch produced, possibly frozen Chile Relleno... put into a combination for $7.99 as you say. However, if some Mexican restaurant does it the right way.... to order, and simply sauces with no sides & charges $15... the equivalent for a dish of similar work & difficulty at a French or Italian restaurant... people are up in arms.

                    Now I don't know what tourist traps you ate at on Avenida Revolucion on your many trips South... but your comments doesn't exactly reveal that you know or understand Mexican cuisine.

                    Yo did make one good point vis-a-vis Lobster... in that pricecs & presitige of certain foods is not absolute... its very, very relative to a society. I can go right now to Puebla.... and get Sabayons, Soufflees or Creme Brulees from humble market stalls for less than $2.... does that make them peasant foods?

                2. Indian food - basic indian dishes can be made with 2 spices: salt and turmeric. For example, a simple aloo gobi (cauliflower and potato) or bhindi (okra) are easy to make.

                  General home cooking requires 7-8 spices tops, but if you attempt to make a Muglai (Royal) biriyani or something that was once considered a dish for wealthy people, then yes, it will have more ingredients.

                  1. As a side note: it is widely accepted that peasants were not independent small farmers, but people largely indentured to large estates. They provided labor, usually grew some portion of their food, but were not land owners.

                    Now to peasant food. Not being financially very well off after WWII, our family ate a lot of what can only be considered Japanese peasant food--lots of rice, vegetables, pickles, and very little meat. Shoyu and a minimum of oil were the main other ingredients for such foods. Such o-kazu was healthy and good, but seems to have disappeared in Japanese homes and never made an apperance in Japanese restaurants anywhere.

                    8 Replies
                    1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                      Not to be an azz... but you are describing Serfs aka Tenants or Sharecroppers. There are many examples of independent landownership all over the world throughout the last 10,000 years...

                      1. re: Eat_Nopal

                        Of course there have been small landed farmers all over the world for all time. They do not, however, comprise what are called "peasants".

                        The peasants of Latin America, for example, were those tied to latifundia--they were not necessarily tenant farmers or sharecroppers, but really a disenfranchised, largely indentured labor force. They gave rise to the "peasant wars of the 20th century". In Japan, the small land-owning farmer was a huge social class step up from the peasant. Unfortunately for us Japanese, everyone still knows what class everyone else came from: peasant, small farmer, merchant, samurai, noble.

                        Fortunately, we still eat the peasant foods remaining after the Chinese, Bolivian, Mexican, and Cuban revolutions and land reform. Sadly to me, however, Japanese peasant food after agrarian reform has seemed to slip away.

                        1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                          I guess its all semantics.... in college I learned that peasants were largely self sustaining farmers... maybe some small taxes, tribute, village projects etc.... indentured labor force, particularly the encomiendas & latifundios.... were just that indenture laborers often not even farming but working as ranch hands, miners, COOKS & other things. Always getting their food & supplies from the hacienda store etc.,... there was a lot more specialization than a traditional peasant.

                          But if you learned a different definition I am not going to dispute that.

                          1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                            "Unfortunately for us Japanese, everyone still knows what class everyone else came from: peasant, small farmer, merchant, samurai, noble."
                            Really? I've never heard that before. I always thought Japan was pretty meritocratic, from an outsider's perspective it seemed even more so than the U.S.. Can I ask how it compares to U.S. in that sense? (Explain what the differences in food consumed are, so that the moderators don't get upset :)

                            1. re: fara

                              Yes, Japan is a meritocracy, as is the US. But Japan is also like I imagine Savannah--everyone still knows who's who, who comes from "good stock" (or is that a Yankee concept?), and who are the decendents of no-accounts. The company CEOs in Japan really are of an old class different than that of the truck drivers.

                              As was mentioned in the NYTs today, the nobles and samurai got to eat things that were off-limits to small farmers, peasants, and merchants.

                        2. re: Sam Fujisaka

                          Just a point of clarification... I didn't mean "peasants" in a historical sense when it comes to political distinctions or divisions.

                          I'm just talking about average people a few decades back. Well before digital TV and Wifi computers. We go to the market and see 20 cheeses. But until recently, the people who made those 20 cheeses probably didn't know there was more than one.

                          1. re: tastyjon

                            Another thought. As PT Barnum put it, "there is a sucker born every minute." Best imagery for me when I see "simple food" morphed into something chic:)
                            My momma and her siblings brought there Mississippi sensibilities to Chicago, growing greens among rose bushes, planting tomatos,okra, fruit and nut trees. Down home even some of the poorest families had a small plot where they could grow some of their food. And don't discount the food that could be caught, trapped, foraged or shot...

                          2. re: Sam Fujisaka

                            Natto, locu moco, chitterlings, hoppin' john and ham hocks come to mind when I think of "peasant food" Being the granddaughter of Black Mississippi and Low Country folk, I was very familiar with soul food (the peasant food of the US) most of my life. Coming to California opened up my life to peasant food from all over the world but especially the Pacific rim. I had a major chuckle when my au pair's very traditional Filipino mom sent him home on the plane from Las Vegas with a bag of rice and a case of spam.
                            I agree that peasant does not always equal simple to prepare. Peasant food for me is also comfort food.