Crepe making is definitely a book-requiring process. Unless I have a distraction, such as a book, I get a bit too impatient and end up turning the heat too high.
With Canada’s first national food policy recently established, sustainability, food security, justice and the right to food are coming more into focus nationally. With that in mind I recently read Food Bank Nations: Poverty, Corporate Charity and the Right to Food (2018) by Graham Riches while making some crepes – and despite the title, which reminded me uncomfortably of Fast Food Nation, I found an interesting overview of food banking history and its implications in wealthy countries. It was thought-provoking and convincingly argued – recommended, particularly if some of the points I summarize below interest you.
“While recognizing the moral imperative to feed hungry people, Food Bank Nations challenges the effectiveness, sustainability and moral legitimacy of globally entrenched corporate food banking as the primary response to rich world food poverty.”
Food banking as an inadequate solution to food insecurity
Food insecurity has multiple definitions, but is often defined as needed to compromise on either the types, quality or quantity of food, or worrying over whether or not you will be able to provision the household with adequate food. The main argument of Food Bank Nations is one that has appeared many times in the media: food banks are a band-aid on the problem of food insecurity, which “is at root a matter of income poverty requiring adequate and equitable income distribution not the redistribution of surplus food.” When there are non-negotiable costs such as rent and electricity and, in this day, and age, cellphone plans and internet, food is flexible – you can buy food of worse quality or you can buy less.
Something quite interesting that Riches laid out was historical context of food banking. I’ve never questioned the existence of food banks, and I’ve always assumed that they were a given, and a necessary part of our society. However, food banks only appeared in Canada in the 80s (of course, prior to that during different stages of history, different forms of food charity/welfare were present) – and it may be telling that countries known to have stronger socialized safety nets came later to the game, with Sweden being the last OECD country to establish a food bank in 2015.
To further the conversation, Riches suggests thinking beyond food security to the right to food, defined by the UN Special Rapporteur as the right to have “regular, permanent and unrestricted access, either directly or by means of financial purchases, to quantitatively and qualitatively adequate and sufficient food corresponding to the cultural traditions of the people to which the consumer belongs, and which ensure a physical and mental, individual and collective, fulfilling and dignified life free of fear.” Currently, many of the measures carried out to ensure people have access to food are done so by food banks and grassroots organizations. The problem is that relying on these organizations often does not provide “regular, permanent and unrestricted access”. For some, relying on charity and often insufficient choice also compromises the type and quality of food and can affect an individual’s sense of dignity.
The entrenchment of food banking as an obstacle to food justice
The most interesting parts of the book come later as Riches furthermore argues that food banking is not only not a solution, but also “perpetuates the problem it claims to be solving and becomes a significant obstacle to achieving food and social justice and public policy reform.”
With the establishment of food banks, Riches says that “hunger is thereby socially constructed and legitimized as a matter for charity, becoming de-politicized.” In other words, hunger is not seen as a political issue that should be addressed by policy changes. For example, it seems natural to assume that individuals should turn to food banks for food aid instead of questioning why the right to food is partially addressed by charity instead of being upheld by justice. In fact, Riches argues that governments benefit from the entrenchment of food banks as they can evade responsibility for ensuring food security, which leads to continued political complacency around upholding the right to food.
Riches also addresses the supposed “win-win” of food banks using leftover food to solve both food waste and food insecurity. “The former is a symptom and downstream consequence of a dysfunctional industrial food system generating endless amounts of surplus food; the latter a result of years of austerity driven low wages, inadequate welfare benefits and unfair income distribution. Logically, it is hard to see how surplus food distribution will curtain the upstream production of food waste or the reduction of eventual elimination of food poverty.” (Riches doesn’t address how food waste should be reduced, but it’s a large enough topic to warrant another book.)
Instead he argues the real win-win may be for corporate food and governments. Riches explains that most food donations are contributed by large food corporations often incentivized through corporate tax credits. “Big Food” can benefit by obtaining social capital (i.e. are viewed more positively by the public due to philanthropism), while saving through corporate tax credits and fewer landfill charges. In effect, food surplus production is encouraged, instead of modifying practices to ensure less food waste. Meanwhile, Riches suggests that this partnership between government and corporate food allows corporate food charity to take over the role of ensuring food access for the populace.
I found Riches’s arguments compelling. While the lack of security nets means that we need food banks right now (in no way am I suggesting that we stop supporting them when their services are very much needed), the key is to not disregard the fact that poverty-alleviating changes are needed to address the root cause of food insecurity.
On the ground
Food Bank Nations employs a simplified view of food banks to formulate larger, system-wide arguments. But the arguments about food banks do not change the fact that right now, given the current system and prevalence of food insecurity, food banks are needed to fill in the gaps. Food banks run on primarily volunteer-based work to address their communities’ needs, and so I also want to emphasize that thank goodness we have them, the volunteers and others that support these organizations. They do their best to promote and support their client’s dignity and provide choices when possible.
It’s also not as if food banks are unaware of underlying problems. For many organizations, it’s far too much of a simplification to just call them “food banks” as they integrate other services that aim to address an individual’s wider socioeconomic situation. Many organizations also advocate for wider food system changes and establishing the right to food in Canada, with some of the most ardent supporters of the right to food and efforts to establish food justice. Organizations such as The Stop, Food Secure Canada and Food Share Canada are examples.
Given that Canada’s general election is fast approaching, this is a time to pay attention to food security, justice and rights in platforms – unfortunately, it’s not something I’ve seen any very much coverage on, but if it is something you’re interested in, Food Secure Canada has organized another Eat Think Vote which runs events to involve community and candidates in conversation around food security and justice issues.
- How do you save four million Canadians from hunger? (The Walrus)
- The new Canada Food Guide highlights the biggest obstacle to health eating – poverty (Maclean’s)
- Corporate food waste isn’t the way to solve hunger in Canada (Huffington Post)
I fell in love with this mille crepe which is poached pear through and through.
The crepes are made with whole wheat flour and a bit of buckwheat, which gives them a bit of bitter savouriness. The filling contains as much spiced poached pear as I could fit in. Thinly sliced poached pear is interspersed in between the layers along with a pastry cream made from the poached pear liquid. At first, I didn’t love the poached pear pastry cream on its own – but once the pastry cream was enriched with whipped cream and layered between the slightly bitter crepes and slices of pear, I noticed how harmonious the entire mille crepe tasted.
spiced poached pear and buckwheat mille crepe
Adapted from How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman. Makes around fifteen 8″ crepes plus a few practice ones! These crepes are wonderfully grainy and nutty.
- 125g (1 cup) whole wheat flour
- 62g (1/2 cup) buckwheat flour
- a couple pinches of salt
- 480g (2 cups) milk
- 3 eggs
- 2 tbsp oil or melted butter
Whisk together flours and salt. Separately, beat together the milk and eggs, add to flour and whisk until combined. Finally whisk in the butter or oil. Cover the batter and place in the fridge to let rest overnight.
Proceed to make the crepes: Brush an 8″ pan with butter or oil and heat over medium heat. Pour in about a scant 1/4 cup of crepe batter and swirl or shake the pan to coat the surface with batter. If you have too much, pour the excess back into the bowl. If you didn’t quite have enough, you can always pour more in and the crepe will look just fine.
Let cook until the edges are dried. Loosen the edges with a spatula, then use your fingertips to hold the dry edges and flip over the crepe. Cook another minute or so on the other side until the crepe is lightly browned. Transfer the cooked crepe to a plate. Stack the crepes one on top of the other as you go. Be sure to adjust the temperature as needed throughout the crepe-making process – if the crepes brown too quickly, lower the heat and vice versa.
Once all the crepes are cooked, place the plate in a loose plastic vegetable bag or cover the stack with plastic – this allows the crisp edges to steam and soften slightly so they will not break while you assemble the crepe cake.
You will only need 1 pear for the actual cake, but here is the quantity for three or four – leaving plenty extra to serve on the side.
- 3-4 pears (I’ve done both bosc and bartlette – both are good options!)
- splash of white wine (optional)
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 4 large green cardamom pods, cracked
- 1/2 a star anise
- a couple pinches of whole cloves
- a couple pinches of peppercorns
- 50g (1/4 cup) sugar
Peel the pears. You can also core them now – use a melon baller to take scoops from the bottom of the pear until you’ve removed the seeds (alternatively, you can simply core the pears later once cooked).
In a saucepan just large enough to fit all the pears, combine the wine, spices and sugar. Nestle in the pears, and add just enough water to cover them. Bring to a simmer and adjust the heat to keep the poaching liquid at a simmer. Cook until pears are tender, about 20 minutes.
Remove the pears and transfer them to a container. If the poaching liquid is more than a few cups, reduce down until the liquid is only 2-3 cups worth in order to concentrate the flavour. Pour the reduced poaching liquid over the pears, and store in the fridge until needed.
poached pear pastry cream
Should be enough filling for about 14-15 crepes.
- 400g poaching liquid
- 200g whole milk
- 30g cornstarch
- 3 egg yolks
- 33g butter
- 1 1/4 cup heavy cream, whipped
In a saucepan, combine the poached pear liquid and milk and taste for sweetness – for a very mildly sweetened crepe cake, this is enough, but more sugar can be added if you prefer.
In a bowl, whisk together the cornstarch, egg yolks, and a couple spoonfuls of the poaching liquid until smooth. Warm the poaching liquid/milk mixture until steaming, then slowly whisk into the egg mixture to temper. Return to the saucepan and cook, whisking constantly, until the mixture begins to bubble – if you pause your whisk for a moment, you’ll notice bubbles slowly rising and popping at the surface. Boil the pastry cream for 2 minutes, while whisking constantly. Immediately transfer the pastry cream to a bowl to prevent it from overcooking. Whisk in the butter, then cover, let cool and chill completely.
When ready to assemble the crepe cake, whip the cream until stiff. Whisk a dollop into the chilled pastry cream until homogenous, then fold in the remainder.
- buckwheat crepes
- poached pears
- poached pear pastry cream
Cut an 8″ circle of parchment paper and place it on the board or plate you will assemble the crepe cake on (this parchment paper will make it easier to slide the cake onto a serving plate/platter later).
Cut a poached pear in half. Cut each half into thin slices, about 3-4mm thick.
Put down the first crepe. Spread a dollop of the pastry cream over the crepe in a thin layer. Place another crepe on top. Arrange about 1/4 of the sliced poached pear over the pastry cream before topping with the next crepe.
After this, every 3 crepes, lay down another quarter of the sliced poached pear. Repeat until you either run out of pastry cream or crepes. Finish the stack by layering on a crepe. By the end of it, you will probably have made four layers of poached pear slices using about 1 poached pear but keep an extra pear on hand in case you need another layer.
Cover the cake with plastic and chill overnight. This will help the cake firm up a bit – if you try to slice the cake right away, the layers will slip and slide. Dust with powdered sugar before serving.
Update notes: Recipe and images updated Dec 2020.