It wasn't my choice to be born in a sparsely populated state. Of course, as a baby and young child, it didn't make much of a difference anyway. As an adult, I've visited and spent time in some of the major metro areas in the country. Although I do truly appreciate living in a rural area, country living and suburbia both have their pros and cons. From my perspective, probably the biggest drawback to country life, given my profession as a cook and author, is the selection of ingredients available in smaller grocery stores. The better part of my adult life has been spent living in small Central Idaho cow towns and this has impacted my life in many ways. But in the context of a being a professional cook, it is most evident in my cooking style. With but one exception, I haven't lived in a town of more than 3,500 population in the last twenty-five years. So, when I head to the grocery store, the selection of products available to me is much less than most folks in this country are used to.
As a cook, it is a real turn-off for me to read a recipe that piques my curiosity, only to see ingredients that are not readily available unless I want to spend an entire day driving to a population center big enough to support several food specialty stores. Regardless of how intriguing such a recipe might be, it goes into the discard pile. While attending Czech Days in Wilber, Nebraska, this past summer, a lady related the following story to me. She described herself as a cooking show junkie, and while watching a cooking show hosted by a very popular television chef, a particular recipe caught her attention. To duplicate this particular recipe cost her $70.00 worth of ingredients and a sixty-mile round trip to Lincoln to find the ingredients. It's my guess that folks who can afford those types of recipes, purchase cookbooks costing a lot more than this one. Anyway, going back to when I wrote my first cookbook, my goal has always been to provide recipes with ingredients available to folks, regardless of how large of a town they live in.
Though I do most of my cooking with what I can find locally, it's nice to be able to pack a few of those "extravagant" items to put that little extra flair into a recipe, either at home or in camp. To a degree, the Internet has made it easier for cooks like myself, in out of the way places, to find products not found on the shelves of the local grocery store. Prior to becoming a cyber-shopper, I made it a habit to stock up on these extras when I made a trip to a big city. Having spent most of my life shopping in smaller grocery stores, when I do get to a big city I consider it "entertainment" to cruise the aisles of the big chain grocery stores, just to see what the city folks have to choose from. My wife still chuckles while watching me wander up and down the aisles, starry-eyed, uttering ooh's and ah's, as though I am watching a brilliant display of fireworks! In some of the bigger metro supermarkets I've shopped at, I've seen sections featuring ethnic food that are bigger than our entire local store. Needless to say, I'm in "hawg heaven" when I get to one of those stores.
While writing this cookbook, a friend of ours, coincidently named Butch, and a couple of other friends came for a few days to do some deer hunting. (My wife calls this situation "Butch Squared"!) Anyway... Butch II, who is quite a cook himself, and I were comparing notes one evening, on good places to shop, i.e., which stores had the best produce, meat, etcetera. One variable that every camp cook I know has to consider, is a not only how much selection a particular store offers, but also how high their prices are. At the mention of a very trendy store with great products, but very high prices, Butch II cracked, "I refuse to shop anywhere where everyone but me is wearing spandex!" He further said he'd take a country grocery store stocked only with staples, rather than take a chance that one of his buddies might drive by this particular grocery store and see his old pickup truck in the parking lot.
Whether you're a camp cook or just cooking for the family, price and selection are two major criteria when buying food. However, it's a fact of life for myself, and many others in rural areas, that the stores we shop in may not have every ingredient that a particular recipe may call for. To me, the mark of a good camp cook is the ability to make do, or find acceptable substitutes, without sacrificing quality or quantity when it comes to ingredient availability. This creativity is all the more remarkable, because it's accomplished without a trip to a large supermarket that is a five minute drive down the street!
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