Set the Table with Peasant Food

Midieval woodblock print of peasants farming

Written By

Robin McDermott

Written on

March 01 , 2009

Many people say they don’t buy into the localvore movement because local food is “elitist.” ?Yet some of the world’s great cuisines—Chinese, Italian, country French, Indian—have their roots among people who had the least to work with: peasants. What can we learn from peasant cultures that can help us eat both economically and locally at the same time?

Peasant foods are typically simple and seasonal, and often consist of hearty one–dish meals in which chunks of “lesser cuts” of meat and vegetables are eaten in a savory broth, usually with bread. It is humble, but delicious food; far from elitist. I have found that local food is only elitist when you try to eat like royalty. A slab of tender steak or a boneless, skinless chicken breast with vegetables and a starch are not what peasants would eat. Eating this way surely will increase your weekly food bill if you “go local.”

Following some simple peasant principles, you can eat for less, enjoy your food more, and eat a mostly local diet year round, even in Vermont. My husband and I can attest to the fact that we are spending about a third less on food today as localvores than we were in 2005 as globalvores. In looking at how we have become “peasant eaters,” we’ve hit upon six simple principles.

Let the “royalty” eat high on the hog

I was fascinated to learn from cookbook author Molly Stevens the origin of the phrase “eating high on the hog.” The tenderest cuts of meat on a pig, or any animal for that matter, come from the least used muscles. That is why meat from the active leg portions of animals (chicken thighs and legs, pork shoulder and ham, beef brisket and chuck roasts) is tougher and usually cannot just be thrown on the grill and served medium rare. Interestingly though, the exercise these muscles get actually makes them much more flavorful than tender cuts such as the tenderloin.

Bought from local farmers, these “lesser cuts of meat” can be less than half the cost of the more “desirable” cuts. I cook them low and slow in braises, soups, stews, and slow roasts. These meals are rich, satisfying, and deliciously filling, and we end up eating less meat than if the meat were the “star” of our dinner plate.

Never Throw Food Away

One thing that happens when you source food locally or grow it yourself is that you gain a much deeper respect for farmers and food producers. Wasting their food is just not right. In fact, wasting any food feels criminal. In our home, leftover ends of bread go into the “leftover bread bag” in the freezer and someday become stuffing, bread pudding, a breakfast strata (see Local Banquet website for recipe), or bread crumbs. All of those little bits and pieces of cheese can become a gooey fromage fort (see recipe on page 28) that you can spread on toasts made from the leftover bread. A leftover piece of ham from Sunday’s dinner, barely enough for one sandwich, can become a meal of hash by sautéing the diced ham with potatoes, onions, and other root veggies and serving it topped with fried eggs. I call meals such as these “free food.” Other great “free food” dishes to make with leftovers are frittatas or quiche, shepherd’s pie, meat pies, omelets, fried rice, sandwiches/wraps, casseroles, and pasta dishes. Of course, there are times when food turns into an inedible science project. That is when I feed the compost pile. So while I don’t produce zero waste from the kitchen, no food goes to waste.

Adapt Recipes to What You Have

Until a few years ago, if I didn’t have all the ingredients that a recipe called for, I would either drop everything and run to the store or I would hold off making the recipe until I could get the ingredients. As a localvore, I’ve had to learn how to make all kinds of substitutions, not because I forget to pick up an ingredient, but usually because specific ingredients called for in a recipe are not local. Some common substitutions include using local whole wheat flour in place of white all–purpose flour and local vinegar in place of lemon juice. 
Sometimes the substitutions work and other times they don’t. But the real benefit of this way of cooking is that I have become much more adventurous. I am very comfortable substituting yogurt and a little milk for buttermilk, kale for spinach, or maple sugar for brown sugar. When I am ready to cook something and realize I’m missing an ingredient, I ask myself, “What would a peasant do?” The answer is NEVER “run out to the store!” So I make do with what I have.

Make Inexpensive Proteins the 
Cornerstone of Your Diet

Vegetarians know that some of the best protein for their meat–free diet can be found in beans, and at $2 or less a pound for locally grown dry beans, they are a bargain. Peasant cultures around the world make beans and rice the foundation of their diet, and it is one of my favorite dishes. The rice can easily be localized by using wheat berries instead. If you are used to using canned beans, dry beans may seem inconvenient because they take two hours or so to cook, plus soaking time. But I have gotten around that inconvenience by cooking up large batches of beans and freezing them in two–cup portions. I freeze them in zip–top bags with some of their cooking liquid and they are ready to go when I need them.

Eggs are another protein bargain. Even farm–fresh eggs from free–range chickens at upwards of $5 a dozen are a bargain when compared to meat. And the bright orange yolk of a local, free–range egg will remain in your mind forever. The pale yellow yolks from factory–farmed eggs simply are not appealing.

Grow Some of Your Own Food

Peasants grow much of their own food or trade with neighbors for what they don’t grow themselves. In our modern–day world with specialization and division of labor, chances are you go to work each day, earn a salary, and use that money to buy food for your family. And that’s great because that is what enables our farmers to stay in business. However, I think that everyone should try to grow at least some of their own food. If nothing else, you gain a much greater appreciation for what farmers are doing for us. Tomatoes are a great place to start. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love a good tomato in season, and tomatoes are one of the more expensive items at the farmers’ market. I always recommend that people at least try to grow their own tomatoes.

Take advantage of “modern–day peasant” conveniences

Many peasants throughout the world even today do not have refrigeration. Lucky for localvores, we have access to this modern–day convenience and I think we should take advantage of it. Personally, I could not eat locally throughout the winter without a freezer. I do a bit of canning, drying, and pickling, and we have a makeshift root cellar, but the freezer holds 75 percent of the food that we eat in the winter. Freezers are surprisingly inexpensive and easily earn their keep in the first season. By the end of November, our freezer is stuffed full of fruits, veggies, broths, and meats that will feed us until early spring. Usually around the middle of April, just when the spinach that we planted the previous fall is starting to come alive under the cold frame, our freezer is about empty.


While most of us are blessed not to suffer the economic hardships faced by peasants around the world, there is a lot that localvores can learn about the frugal and sustainable ways of peasants. In a time when we are all feeling the economic pinch of a difficult economy and are living in an environment in crisis, we can be inspired by the lives of people who live close to the land, and close to their food sources.

Illustration from the Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Washington, D.C.

About Peasants & Peasant Food

  • Peasants are people who farm, ranch, hunt, herd, or fish on a small scale. As such, they live close to the places and animals that provide their food.
  • Until the Industrial Revolution—when rural people sought jobs in urban factories—practically everyone was a peasant. Even today, peasants still account for most of the world’s population.
  • While peasants appear to be poor by many of our standards, they are by no means impoverished. Peasants lead rich lives steeped in traditions passed down through the ages.
  • Most peasants are quick and gracious in offering their hospitality, despite how little they appear to own.Peasant recipes often consist of hearty one-dish meals, in which chunks of “lesser cuts” of meat and vegetables are eaten in a savory broth, usually with bread.
  • Peasants tend to see the land as an extension of life itself and not as a source of monetary income.
  • Buying exotic ingredients from halfway around the world to make a “classic” peasant dish (although I am sometimes guilty of doing it) is the antithesis of true peasant cuisine.

- Robin McDermott

Adapted in part from:

About the Author

Robin McDermott

Robin McDermott

Robin McDermott is cofounder of the Mad River Valley Localvore Project and, with her husband, Ray, works out of their home-based office in Waitsfield developing web-based training to support manufacturing quality and productivity.

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