For most of the past year, one of member of my household has been unable to chew. Apart from the invasive (not to mention jaw-droppingly expensive) dental work that made it impossible, there was also the fear of further pain.
So I’ve been cooking nothing but soft food and I mean really, really soft food. Not even stews or pasta cooked al dente were soft enough.
It’s taught me a lot about kitchen practice, health, and food in the past.
Modern Food the Antithesis of Soft Food
Modern food emphases the fresh and the natural, as well as the fast and convenient. Hence it abounds in quickly sautéed or grilled meat and lightly cooked or raw vegetables. Hopeless for the dentally challenged.
Soft food is modern food’s antithesis. It’s not readily available in supermarkets and restaurants. Why not resort to jars of baby food? said one acquaintance. The thought had cross my mind, as had Soylent and Ensure.
That’s not the way families work, though. You don’t exile one member, condemning them to watch others enjoy roast chicken or pot roast. It was adult, enjoyable soft food for all that was needed.
And that meant older recipes, often unfashionable today, when soft food was more highly valued.
So what did we end up eating? Well soups of course, especially cream of vegetable and dried pea bean soups.
And for the main course, ground meat, meat balls from different cuisines as long as softened with breadcrumbs or rice, stuffed vegetables, and keema, though hamburgers were too chewy; thin filets of white fish, and eggs, scrambled, in omelets, and in savory custards. Mashed potatoes came around and around in fish cakes and shepherd’s pie. So did béchamel as a basis for soufflés and roulardes, tuna casserole (don’t laugh, I make a delicious one), in Spanish-style chicken croquettes, and very long-cooked lasagne.
Vegetables were braised: beans, greens, carrots, or celery cut into thin slices across the grain, for example; or pureed, in creamed spinach, creamed corn and refried beans. Sad to say, because I love them, squashes and eggplants have never been popular in our house.
And as for salads, well, tomatoes could be peeled and chopped finely. Apple sauce appeared regularly, though to my English taste, this should be a tart sauce and not a sweet side dish, so I passed. And, glory hallelujah, avocados were an instant sauce as guacamole or side dish with lemon and salt, or lunch with a little canned tuna.
Breadcrumbs became my go-to source for a bit of texture in all those cakes and croquettes and casseroles, or sprinkled over soft buttered cauliflower.
Compared to main courses, desserts were a breeze. Cookies were out, but cakes, puddings, ice cream and flan all went down very happily.
Preparing Soft Food
No zipping into the kitchen, throwing a chicken cutlet in the pan and shaking out a bag of salad greens. Soft food has to be planned in advance and started well before the meal, even with blenders and processors to reduce ingredients to purees. How much more work it must have been in the past without this array of small electric appliances, all that working away with pestles and mortars and forcing mixtures through sieves.
Luckily meat balls and fish cakes freeze well, so made in quantity and frozen they became quick meals.
But how often I cursed the limited range of good quality canned vegetables in the US, compared to say Spain, since canned vegetables tend to be very soft. Rightly or wrongly I blamed the fresh and natural movement for making it so declassé to buy canned vegetables that manufacturers have little incentives to promote them. Even so, I was happy for canned asparagus, or at least the tips as the lower stem was too stringy.
Health and Soft Food
Soft food makes fiber a problem, especially since the sufferer refused high fibre cereals and could not handle whole grain breads. Thank you bean soups and refried beans in all your forms.
Calories were a problem, even with careful planning and time in the kitchen. Pound after pound dropped off, thirty-five pounds in just six months, from someone who could not afford to lose much in the first place. Forget those sneers about empty calories. In these circumstances, calories are calories. Think of all the eggs and milk in flan, I said to myself.
So I was to hear from Lauraine Jacobs that in New Zealand the Pure Food Company is tending to the needs of the sick and elderly with prepared foods. Perhaps similar initiatives are under way in the States. It never occurred to me to look. Of course special diets are prepared by big companies for hospitals but most of those are less than appetizing.
Why, though, is dental care excluded from Medicare and only reimbursed to a tiny extent in other insurance plans? If preventive medicine is all the rage, what is more effective, delivers more bang for the buck, than functioning teeth? Fewer clanking MRI machines and a bit more insured dentistry, please.
Soft Food in the Past
Which leads to the past. Dentistry barely existed, except for tooth pulling, until the last century and even then much of the time false teeth, hardly ideal, were seen as the way to go.
No wonder cookbooks are full of gruels and soups, anything that delivered a little food to those who found it difficult to eat, including those with bad teeth.
And how many people lost weight because they could not chew food, which was harder to soften without modern technology? And how often did they succumb to the illnesses that are the main cause of death when people are on the verge of starving?
Looked at from another angle, in the past soft food was more prestigious than crunchy food. I had always put this down to two factors. First, that soft food was refined food, refined in the same sense that metals are refined, processing out the dross and getting to the pure essence or nature of the food. Second, since only the rich could regularly afford laborious soft food (easily pounded or mashed roots being a major exception), soft food was desirable food.
Perhaps, though, there was a third reason. The rich as much as the poor suffered from cavities and gum disease. What monarch or aristocrat wanted to be embarrassed by being unable to chew the dish he was served?
Addendum 03/07/2016 Practical Hints
A couple of further comments on the practical side.
- I found that this was not the moment to introduce radically new dishes or to try to persuade the individual to enjoy foods that had never been enjoyable. So most of my dishes came from the tradition that every family puts together over the years. That’s not to say I didn’t experiment with new dishes. Just that they worked best if within this general structure. Luckily thanks to natural inclination and an itinerant life this was a fairly broad structure, so thank you, thank you all those of you who have sent such useful suggestions.
- More difficult than thinking up dishes was how to reorganize kitchen time and technique so that it wasn’t too time-consuming. Most hints for quick meals were totally irrelevant. That’s why it was so useful to know what could be frozen, for example, or why it was important to have a bottomless supply of good breadcrumbs (I’m not taken with most commercial ones). So I was thrilled to hear from Diane Wolff who addresses just this question in her cookbook, which she wrote when she cared for her mother who could not swallow. My copy has not yet arrived (even Amazon is not that fast) but it feels just right. So if you find yourself in this situation, you might want to check this out this note from her.
I am an author and a journalist. I have written about food in my author’s life. I am a good cook from a family of good cooks. So I wrote a cookbook and a guidebook for setting up a puree kitchen. You can take a look at the book at http://www.essentialpuree.com
My website is meant to be a resource for persons who need recipes or tips and tricks and reviews of kitchen appliances.