The next time you go into a supermarket, please do me a solid, and kiss the clerk… or if you’re too shy, then at least shake her hand. She certainly deserves it, because modern supermarkets are truly a wondrous glory. In your average supermarket, there are about 40,000 unique items for sale from all corners of the world. That’s forty-thousand ingredients you can use in your kitchen. Forty-thousand ingredients means millions upon millions of possible combinations for your meals! The possibilities are endless, and the Struggle is Real just to choose what to cook! So, thank your supermarket employees for being so awesome!
But wouldn’t it be nice if all your food were fresh and local? Here in Bolivia, like in many countries, our food is almost all fresh, and all local. In fact, folks have been doing the fresh and local thing here since, like, forever… literally. Unfortunately, there is no other choice.
Fresh and local means our kitchens are way more limited. Modern supermarkets are unknown in the entire country, beyond a few imposters in the largest cities. Forty-thousand ingredients? Ha! Try about two hundred ingredients in our village! This is what it was like to cook before the invention of refrigeration and modern transportation systems. This is what it’s still like in many places around the world.
There are no real supermarkets within hundreds of miles of our location. Sure, there are markets everywhere. Every town has a market with fresh and local ingredients… they’re just not “super” markets. This is what a typical market looks like in Bolivia:
I counted the number of items this vendor carries for sale… it’s less than 200. There are a few items her neighbors have, which she doesn’t have… so let’s call it 200 for the whole market…. 200 fresh and local ingredients for the whole village.
Most markets consist of several vendors like this. The market in our village has six vendors. They all sit right next to each other, and they all sell the same damn things. Larger markets in the cities are basically the same idea, there are just more vendors, and a few more items for sale. The largest markets in the cities have hundreds of vendors.
Our market has no frozen food, no microwave food, and very little canned food. There is no instant food, no pre-packaged food, no prepared mixes, and nothing in jars. There are no processed meats, no deli section, no bakery. In fact, there is only one type of bread, it’s full of gluten, and you’d better damn like it!
Fresh And Local Food
Fresh and local food means fruits and vegetables that were harvested nearby, just a few days ago. Yes, it sounds wonderful, but it means you live by the seasons, and the selection is limited. There are no avocados from Mexico, winter grapes from Chile, berries from California, or bananas from Honduras. In fact, at any one time, there are only about 10-20 different types of fruits and vegetables to choose from…. in the whole market!
Right now, our market has exactly twelve kinds of vegetables: carrots, onions, potatoes (3 kinds), tomatoes, cabbage, beets, lima beans, string beans, peas, and bell peppers. Plus, we have exactly four kinds of fruit: bananas, oranges, mandarins, and apples. That’s it. Every day it’s the same. Occasionally, a new kind of veggie will make a brief appearance – but most days it’s the same.
Everything comes from nearby – harvested straight from our village or one of the neighboring towns.
In addition to the fresh food, we have dried food stuffs that don’t require refrigeration, such as flour, pasta, rice, beans, corn, wheat, peanuts, and spices. Nothing is packaged, processed, or prepared – it’s all bulk basic ingredients.
The meat section has exactly two ingredients: de-feathered whole chickens (with or without the head), and large slabs of very tough beef. Oh, you want tender grass-fed beef? GTFO! Bacon? Sausage? Ham? That’s a fool’s dream.
The dairy section has five ingredients: eggs, whole milk, butter, cow’s cheese (1 kind), and very salty goat cheese. Then there are a few other miscellaneous packaged ingredients for cooking, such as baking soda, yeast, and cooking oil, and a few scarce canned goods. And that’s about it… 200 items in total.
This is a very limited list of ingredients for someone trying to cook daily meals with a little variety.
In life without a glorious, 40,000-item supermarket, there are only three letters you need to know: D-I-Y. With such a limited list of ingredients, you have to create most things from scratch – even things that your average supermarket shopper would consider basic ingredients.
We make our own yogurt, peanut butter, tomato sauce, hot sauce, teriyaki sauce, salad dressing, granola, humus, refried beans, tortillas, wheat bread, and juices. Any kind of sauce, anything that requires baking, anything that requires processing, anything that needs to be combined with more than one basic ingredient – it has to be made from scratch.
Time And Effort
Who doesn’t want to eat fresh, local, made-from-scratch meals? You know where your food is coming from. You know how it was prepared. And you know what’s in it. It’s the way to go… if you have the luxury of spending several hours a day preparing your meals.
Yes, it all sounds wonderful, so long as you’re not the cook. With only 200 basic ingredients available, there are no shortcuts. You have to start preparing lunch around 9 or 10 am. And if you’re going to eat dinner, you might as well stay in the kitchen all day.
Going Full Paleo
And to show you just how seriously people take the whole paleo thing here…. Lots of folks cook over open fires. In fact, in the traditional Bolivian house, the kitchen is in a separate room with a constant fire going.
We mostly cook indoors over a gas grill, but we cook outside over an open fire a lot too. Here’s our outdoor kitchen – going full paleo:
Freedom of Choice
This is a great way to eat if you have the time and you love to cook: fresh, local, diy…. And fortunately, we do. But, wouldn’t it be nice to walk over to a supermarket and buy some boneless chicken breasts? Or baby spinach? Maple bacon? Or perhaps some hamburger buns? I can only wish. What makes modern supermarkets so great is not the bewildering options, but the freedom of choice they provide.
Living near a supermarket, you can choose to live like we do: fresh and local – if that’s your thing. But you don’t have do it all day, every day. You can cheat a little whenever you please with a bottle of French wine, some greek olives, or a Spanish cheese from your supermarket. Or perhaps you want to eat nothing but microwave dinners all the time….. I can’t imagine why, but hey, whatever floats your boat, huh? If you live near a supermarket, you can. You have the freedom of choice to be what you want to be.
And so, the next time you’re in a supermarket, please do me a solid. Thank your clerk.