In the U.S., we take meat for granted. Yet, for most of the world, meat has long been a luxury product consumed infrequently. Our trip to a small Spanish mountain village suggests this is changing.
Going to eat with the villagers
Cartajima is a village near Ronda with about 100 residents. It is a typical "white town" of Spain. Every house has a red-tiled roof and whitewashed walls. The architecture is inherited from the Islamic Moors who once ruled this region.
Cartajima's local industry is chestnuts. The fuzzy balls litter the roads leading out of town. In the last 20 years, Spain's economy has improved dramatically. I suspect Cartajima has more money now. But the steady decline in population suggests that it is poorer by comparison than urban Spain.
On the surface, Cartajima feels ancient, pastoral, rustic. As I drove into town, I wondered what wonderfully authentic foods might be prepared in its kitchens.
There is only one place to buy a cooked meal in Cartajima -- Balthazar's Bar. Balthazar has a big screen TV, and about half the town gathers there for football matches. Two of his kids have gone on to bigger and better things. His daughter works in England and even did a stint at the world's highest-rated restaurant, the Fat Duck. His son is a famous Spanish chef.
But Balthazar's food is nothing fancy. I had the sense that we were eating exactly what the locals ate.
More money, more meat
After a decent salad with very white lettuce, we were served a collection of fried foods and meats -- french fries, fried ham croquettes, fried shrimp (with more batter than shrimp), beef stew, and grilled pork.
Death of the market; the rise of the supermarket
Our innkeeper also explained that there are no more local markets. Even nearby Ronda, a town of 40,000, does not have much of a market. Instead, everyone buys food at supermarkets.
Curiously, larger cities, such as Sevilla and Jerez, do have markets. They are filled with produce and the exotic sort of ingredients that many American foodies would love to buy.
But the folks in Cartajima have little access to markets. They travel to Ronda's supermarkets and buy industrially processed food. So when we ate like the locals, we ate the same food sold in American supermarkets.
Spain is not alone. Many countries with emerging economies are eating more meat. This is especially true of the Chinese.
As I ate my plate of American-style french fries, I noted the irony. Here, in a beautiful rural setting, in a town known for farming chestnuts, I was eating American-style freezer food and grilled meat. These villagers in rural Spain have less access to rural produce than I do in urban Houston.
Peasant food for rich urbanites
In contrast, the finest restaurants of Jerez -- a larger, richer city -- served plenty of fresh produce and fruit. For instance, even a meat dish, such as this Andalucian pork , was served with purees of red and green peppers and grapes.
Even in Cartajima, we were served a more produce-based dinner by our worldly innkeeper -- a British expat who has traveled throughout Africa and Europe. Her meal reflected the food philosophy summed up by Michael Pollan:
"Eat food. Not too much. Mostly Plants."
The innkeeper gave us a choice of delicious peasant soups: lentil and spinach or potato and leek. She then served a plate of Moroccan-style couscous, grilled red peppers, grilled eggplant, a few bites of grilled chicken, and a bowl of yogurt and herbs.
The meal focused on grains, legumes, and produce. The few bites of meat were just flavoring -- an added bonus of protein.
Although this meal was inspired by peasant food, it reflected the diet of an emerging food elite. As the world's middle class turns to processed foods and industrially-produced meats, the elites may be turning away from meat toward classing ingredients of peasant food -- beans, grains and locally-grown produce.
In terms of social class, the world of food is turning upside down.
Postscript: my kitchen resolutions for 2009
For several years, the food I have cooked at home follows a pattern: large salad, bread, and grilled or simply prepared meat or fish. Yet good fish is getting expensive. And I have been eating too much meat.
Now I sense my cooking habits change. Last week I stocked up on beans, grains, and produce. Last Tuesday, I cooked curried lentils. On Friday, Indonesian noodle soup. On Sunday, a cassoulet with far more beans than meat.
This is not trying to be more like the innkeeper than the villagers. It is about eating foods that the world can sustain. It is about preserving seafood by eating it only on special occasions. It is about promoting a viable market for locally-grown produce.
It is about eating food that is healthier. And better for the planet. I am just lucky that I can choose what I eat.