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When I finish my coffee and our little girl wakes up so we can have breakfast together, I'll drive out to the farm and help my father-in-law harvest chickens. In the meantime, this morning's text comes from Merle Haggard, and is inspired by my trip down the baking isle of the local Kroger yesterday.

I wish Coke was still cola and a joint was a bad place to be.
It was back before Nixon lied to us all on TV.
Before Microwave ovens when a girl could still cook, and still would.
Is the best of the free life behind us now and are the good times really over for good?

And my question is this: Why is it now possible to buy flour only in five-pound bags?

I suppose I should apologize for the sexism of Mr. Haggard's lyrics, but (having interviewed him a couple times in a previous life) I'm pretty sure he wouldn't, and that misses the point I'm ambling toward anyhow.

A decade or so back I spent a year in Los Angeles. Purgatory, or worse. The people I worked with thought I was weird because I'd brought a few hand tools with me, and was more or less capable of using them. One friend, who now works for the Cooking Network, told me that cooking at home was a waste of life.

I'm not a chef, and I'm not going to take this particular career time-out to go to culinary school, but I like to cook, and I care about what I'm eating.

And one of the things that struck me as odd when I went shopping in Los Angeles was that one could only buy flour in five-pound bags. Now...if you bake (and I'm really a pancake and quick breads guy; my wife is the yeast person in our house), five pounds doesn't last long. And then there was the other problem: there are flours other than white and the token bag of whole wheat that one might wish to use, now and again.

I suppose it was silly of me to want buckwheat in Los Angeles, but I happen to like buckwheat pancakes, though I've no idea how a kid from the suburbs of Seattle developed that appetite. (Now, living in the south, my daughter won't touch the stuff. Go figure.) But, y'know, rye flour? Graham flour? Anything?


Finally I was reduced to going to a health food store filled with some of the least healthy people I've ever seen (it was near CBS studios, which might explain some of that). Which is fine. And then I figured out that if I drove home through South Central, and stopped at the working class grocery store, they still had flour in ten-pound sacks, and sometimes more.

Fast forward, life changes, and I end up in eastern Kentucky. Where people can still cook (and still do), and still grow some of their own food, even if only by reflex and tradition (though the present economy has made them grateful for the habit, and me grateful for the knowledge they're willing to share).

The local Kroger just expanded, with the bonus that there's more ethnic food on the shelves, at least temporarily. (In passing: who the hell thought their new logo was a good idea, and how were they related to the chairman of the board?) So I was surprised to find over the weekend that I was back in LA, that there was nothing on the shelf but five-pound bags of white flour, a token section of King Arthur whole wheat, and the usual assortment of cornmeal (which was a rare object in LA).

I assume that Kroger knows what it's doing, what with its high-tech tracking device which monitors everything my household purchases. I assume that it shelves what it believes it can sell. I suspect that if I went to one of the more down-scale supermarkets in town I might find at least white flour in something like bulk.

And the truth is that we are, to some extent, part of this theoretical problem, as we drive an hour west to a small mill in Midway, Kentucky (Weisenberger's) and buy our flour in 25-pound bags. And we stock up for several friends who also bake. So we're not helping Kroger make good consumer decisions, I suppose.

But the point, that sharp sticky thing I'm ambling toward before I pour my second cup of coffee, is this: I live in a poor, rural setting (leavened by a small university). And the wisdom of the marketeers says that the people around me don't cook. Bake. Don't need flour often enough to justify buying it more than five pounds at a time.

I know this is a small thing. Really I do. But it troubles me. It troubles me because even restaurants don't bake from scratch any more. It troubles me because having the time and inclination to cook is now, apparently, an affectation of the middle class. It troubles me because obesity is a huge issue in Appalachia (sorry, that's an unintended pun, but I'm typing too fast to go back and recast the phrase), and the people who aren't cooking are in line at all the fast food joints in town.

It troubles me because it's yet another reminder of how disengaged much of the population is from the basic skills which were once thought to be necessary for survival. And it trouble me because the way I read the tea leaves, we'd best all be accumulating those skills, and in a hurry.

Originally posted to Shocko from Seattle on Tue Jul 20, 2010 at 03:48 AM PDT.

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