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I was 'slow food' when slow food wasn't cool

Crock-pot meals fed my family when money was tight.

By Donna_Freedman Nov 2, 2009 2:54AM

I remember when slow cookers first hit the market, back in 1970. To my cash-strapped family such things were luxuries, culinary toys for the rich. We felt the same way about popcorn poppers and the Fry Daddy.

But I don't know how I would have made it as a struggling single mother eight years later without the slow cooker. It made most of the meals on which the baby and I subsisted: primarily bean soup, with occasional forays into minestrone and spaghetti.

One or two mornings a week, I'd put a pound of great northern beans in the pot with some grated carrot, chopped onion, pepper, and smoked neck bones or ham hock. When I got home, the smell of soup made me feel like someone had been cooking for me all day. It also took my mind off the sack of dirty diapers that I’d be washing on a scrub board later on. 

After I married, it was years before I could even think about bean soup. But I still used the slow cooker for chili and sloppy joes, and that minestrone and spaghetti. I never did buy a cookbook for the appliance, because my impression was that far too many recipes involved cream of mushroom soup.

Bean counting
For the two years it took to get divorced, I was back to bean soup. And to pinto beans cooked with ham ends and served with cornbread. And to food-bank chili: a cup of government-commodity dry red beans simmered until tender, then mixed with a quarter-pound of ground beef (usually bought from the markdown bin -- the food bank rarely had meat), spices bought three-for-a-dollar at Walgreens, and canned tomatoes whose pinkish label bore the words, "Distributed by USDA in cooperation with state and local or tribal governments for domestic food assistance programs. Not to be sold or exchanged."

I also discovered that slow cookers do great baked potatoes. The food bank always had spuds, so I enjoyed many meals of potatoes with a side veggie, and leftover potatoes fried with eggs.

While I was married, I’d viewed the slow cooker as a convenience, like a microwave or washing machine. During the divorce years, when I also returned to college, I’d sooner have given up my bus pass than my slow cooker. Back to living on pennies, I once again realized how vital the slow cooker can be to the cash-strapped.

The original ‘slow food’
My finances have improved, so I no longer go to the food bank. (In fact, I find ways to donate to it.) But I have not lost my newfound appreciation for the slow cooker. The appliance is a busy college student/freelance writer’s best friend.

And I'm slowly branching out. Here's a recipe from a former co-worker: put the cheapest pork roast there is into the slow cooker with a little water, and cook on low overnight. (If you like, you can rub it with spices first, like cayenne and basil and garlic.) Take a fork to it the next day and it’ll shred like a politician’s promises. Add barbecue sauce and serve on toasted rolls. It’s delicious and, yes, cheap.

Like many people who have been broke, I don’t see the reason to spend more money than I have to -- for food or for anything else. That’s why I think everybody should have a slow cooker. Low-end ones cost as little as $6.99. Look on the Internet for recipes, which have gotten much more adventurous. You won’t need a single can of cream of mushroom soup, unless you really want it.

Beans are optional, too.

Published Oct. 5, 2007
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