Saturday, October 30, 2010

My New Cookbook

Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France

Published last week, Joan Nathan's Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France is now number four on's French cookbook bestseller list -- behind 2 editions of Mastering the Art of French Cooking and one other book. It's quite beautiful, with many color photos and historic illustrations.

I spent quite a bit of time reading the narrative parts of the text and looking over the pictures this afternoon (while simultaneously watching the Jon Stewart rally on streaming video). After also looking at the ingredient lists for the recipes, I expect I'm going to have fun trying the recipes. The background on Jewish life and cooking in France is quite enjoyable, though not very detailed. Nathan's recipes represent a wide collection from Jewish cooks she interviewed. I was a little surprised because she did not seem to search out historical recipes from earlier eras: just to find those that still maintain an active place in the living repertoire.

Nathan will be at the Jewish Book Festival in Ann Arbor Monday night to promote the book. I'm looking forward to hearing what she has to say about it, and assume she'll tell some more tales of the people she met and the homes, shops, markets, and restaurants she visited.

Thursday, October 28, 2010


I always buy Halloween candy that I like, especially little Butterfingers, Snickers, and Hershey's minis. This year I also mixed in some peppermint kisses that are made of that waxy not-even-chocolate white stuff with chips of peppermint. I think they were technically early Christmas candy.

To my surprise, several food writers are taking this stuff seriously. Or sort of seriously: examining the calorie content and comparing nutrition in peanut M&Ms to the nutrition facts about other candy that didn't have that nice peanut protein (here and here). Or describing the taste of the candy with words like "floral" or "toasty, nutty notes." In Our taste test of fine and foul Halloween candies, the author, normally a super-serious food writer at, vacillates in just how serious he's taking the taste test.

I'm going to give a couple pieces of candy each to several hundred kids dressed up in costumes, whose mothers might let them eat it -- or whose mothers might eat it for them. The next block over from us will be closed to car traffic to encourage and protect the trick-or-treaters. This will probably cause even more than the usual hundreds to show up here. I'll be glad to see them. I do not think that the nutritional value of one or another kind of candy is at issue. And if I gave them little boxes of raisins, it would seem mean-spirited. Also, I would miss my minimum annual requirement of Butterfinger bars.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Do You Like Butter?

Miriam and Alice are almost ready for Halloween with their costumes: sticks of butter.


The Jack-o-Lanterns are also ready to light. A maze made of bales of hay was a fun place to play while we were also picking out all the pumpkins:


Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Sunset Memories

Today's New York Times has a great review of the century or more of Sunset Magazine. See this: The Original California Cuisine, Courtesy of Sunset Magazine. In my early days of cooking, I lived first in Berkeley, then La Jolla, and tried many recipes from Sunset. For a year, I worked in an office with a number of clerks and nurses who talked cooking all the time, and they recommended it. I've always regretted that its focus is so totally on the West, while I live here in Michigan. Reading it makes me too sad -- though I continued to subscribe and use the Sunset cookbooks for many years after I moved away from its region. I think my favorite recipe was for a cheesecake with a swirl of chocolate on top. It's been decades since I made that cheesecake.

Sunset was especially my frequent source of Thanksgiving ideas. Since it's coming up, here's one recipe:

Wild Rice and Sourdough Stuffing with Almonds

(Sunset, Nov. 92: for a 17 lb. turkey or a smaller turkey with some in a pan)

1/2 loaf of sourdough bread (1.5 LB loaf)

1/2 c. sliced almonds (1/4 LB by wt)

1 lb. Italian turkey sausage

2 large onions, chopped

1 TB. each rosemary and sage

1 and 1/2 c. wild rice, rinsed and drained

6 c. turkey stock, made the night before from turkey neck etc. (see below)

Night before: cook rice in 4 c. broth: bring to boil in 3 qt. pan, turn down, simmer 60 min, stirring occasionally. Leave in pan overnight on back of stove. Rice will absorb liquid. (When we didn't have enough time, we did this just before making the turkey, with less liquid, and it was not bad.)

Just before stuffing bird: spread bread cubes on rimmed cookie sheet. Bake at 350 for 20 min; set aside. Then bake almonds on same sheet for 10 min; set aside with bread. Crumble sausage onto pan and mix with onion and herbs. Cook for 1/2 to 3/4 hr. Discard any fat. Pour remaining 2 c. broth over bread, allow to absorb. Mix all ingredients together, stuff and truss turkey immediately. Original suggests baking dressing in a separate pan, but I stuffed a 17 lb.. turkey, including much stuffing between the skin and the breast and cooked for 5 hours with an aluminum foil tent, first half hour at 425 degrees, remaining at 325. This is as I made it, with adaptations to published recipe. If made in a pan, should have some butter added.

Here are some other recipes that I saved:

Sunset Green Chile Strata

A Sunday Brunch dish.

3/4 LB cheddar, Swiss, or mozzarella

1 LB bulk sausage or ground pork

5-6 slices white bread, buttered & cubed

4 oz can Old El Paso green chilies

4-6 eggs

1-2 cups milk

Salt, pepper, Chile powder

Brown and drain sausage. Shred cheese. Layer half the bread- sausage-chilies-cheese in buttered casserole dish. Repeat layers. Pour mixture of eggs, milk, and spices over all, and let stand over night. Bake 1 hour at 350 degrees.

Italian Pickled Vegetables

Made for Evelyn's Recital, 1986 and Evelyn & Tom's Wedding, 2000; these are Evelyn's instructions for making it in 2000, as I long ago gave her the edition of the Sunset Italian Cookbook in which it appears.

12-18 small carrots, about 3/4 in in diameter

1 small bunch celery

2 large red bell peppers

1 large (about 2 lbs) cauliflower

1 cup salt

4 quarts cold water

1 pound onions peeled

(calls for pickling or tiny white, but we cut regular)

2 quarts white vinegar

1/4 cup mustard seeds

2 tablespoons celery seeds

1 small dried hot red chile

2 1/2 cups sugar

Peel carrots; cut in half lengthwise and then into 1 1/2-inch lengths; measure 4 cups. Remove strings from celery; slice lengthwise and then into 1 1/2-inch lengths; measure 3 cups. Remove seeds and stems from peppers and cut into 1-in-wide strips. Break cauliflower into 1 1/2-in-thick flowerets and trim stems.

Stir salt into the cold water until dissolved. Add measured carrots and celery, peppers, cauliflowerets, and onions. Let stand, covered, in refrigerator for 12 to 18 hours; then drain, rinse in cold water, and drain again.

In a 6-quart pot, combine vinegar, mustard seeds, celery seeds, chile, and sugar. Bring to a boil and continue to boil for 3 minutes. Add vegetables and boil until vegetables are almost tender (10 minutes); discard chile.

Store in refrigerator in jars. (They have instructions on canning. We didn't do that though.)

I made it two weeks in advance.

Monday, October 18, 2010

"Four Meals"

The novel Four Meals by Meir Shalev portrays several strong-minded characters living in Israel before and soon after Israeli independence. The book is very sensual, describing tastes, smells, the beauty of the landscape, and deep feelings among the characters. It's hard to describe the technique of writing -- reading is almost like looking close up at an impressionist painting and then stepping back and seeing a street scene or a row of trees or a grain field.

Each section of the book describes a meal served to the narrator by Jacob, one of his three possible fathers. The meals take place at very long intervals and different stages of their lives. The food at each meal includes a delicious dessert, a foamy combination of wine, sugar, and eggs that the father learned once from an Italian POW during the war -- a man who made a big impression on him. Tastes and smells echo throughout the book, gathering significance.

The book begins:
"On warm days, a soft smell of milk rises from the walls of my house. The walls are plastered and whitewashed, tiles cover the ground, but from the pores of the walls and the cracks of the floor, the smell rises to me, persists, steals in like the sweat of an ancient love.

"Once my house was a cowshed... And a woman lived in the cowshed, she worked and slept in it, dreamed and wept. And on a bed of sacks she gave birth to her son."
Much is hinted in these initial words, along with a glimpse of the mother's eccentric nature. As the novel proceeds, more and more tastes, smells, and complex Israeli experiences merge into an overall impression of life in that long-ago time.

One taste that recurs is salt. A character named Judith may have been the narrator's half-sister. Or not. But she made cheese and pickles "salty-spicy little cucumbers she pickled in jars in the window of the cowshed ... Many times I have tried to make pickles like hers, and didn't succeed, but I can evoke the memory of their smell in my nose and then I slide my tongue over my teeth... salty salty salty salty salty salty salty ytlas ytlas ytlas ytlas ytlas ytlas ytlas..." (p. 132)

Jacob, who cooks the four meals, says "cooking salt is better than table salt that dissolves altogether. But in the soul, love with worry and with hate should be mixed together, and anger with longing with fear with a little joy should be mixed together. Otherwise it cuts you up in pieces." (p. 164)

Much later at another meal Jacob describes how he felt very sorry for Italian who taught him the key recipe: "Not because he escaped from the POW camp... But because he sat down at the table and three fingers he put into the bowl of salt and put some for himself on the palm of his other hand and from there he licked the salt with his tongue just like a cow from her stone in the trough." (p. 262)

Each meal ends with the key dessert: "Jacob boiled a pot of water on the fire, cracked an egg into the palm of his had, slipped the white between his spread fingers, and put the yolk into the bowl. A little wine, a little sugar, and the whisk was gleaming in his had, steam rose, and the warmth emitted the smell of wine in the air." (p. 248)

Finally, the narrator makes the dish for himself "and all at once the rich fragrance of zabaglione rose in the air. ... I stood up and slid my tongue over my top teeth from right to left and from left to right sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet teews teews teews teews teews teews teews teews teews teews teews teews teews" (p. 282)

The aromas and tastes that support this story, which is at the same time realistic and fairy-tale-like, are presented in a very special way, making it a quite imaginative book.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Buying Honey


Elaine and Larry at the Lafayette Farmers' Market.

Lafayette Farmers' Market




At the market in downtown Lafayette, Indiana, many of the sellers are farmers selling their own produce, but others sell produce from other locations. The tomatoes in the photo, for example, were from nearby in Indiana, but the same farmer was selling Idaho onions. No frost yet -- so lots of beautiful things are still in season that often have disappeared by mid-October.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Food Communities

Rob Walker began his current NY Times column "Consumed" --
"For some, the old cliché that you are what you eat has taken on increasingly complex implications: food choices can be a stand-in for social, ideological, even political identity and beliefs. Eaters can form communities of a sort, and businesses are built catering to them."
I think this is a useful observation about one current view of food, and helped me to expand my recent thoughts on how we decide what to eat. I think this helps to understand the recent trend towards making arbitrary commitments that select food for a single reason (such as limiting one's diet to local food or so-called unprocessed food). Interesting idea.

Walker's article, Shared Tastes, continued with a discussion of "incubators," that is, communal kitchens where small-scale entrepreneurs can begin a business of food preparation and sales. He offers examples from a number of cities where women (especially) without investment capital can begin to produce and market food items. He makes the point that the usual motives for food purchases -- taste, familiarity, cost... -- are often more important to buyers than the theoretical ideas of the incubator founders: "the most successful food entrepreneurs put the least emphasis on the societal impact of their mission." For example, he cites one cook from such a project "telling an interviewer that she didn’t use organic ingredients. She finally admitted that, actually, she does — but avoids saying so because to many of her customers it simply 'sounds expensive.'"

Monday, October 11, 2010

Really good point about processing food

"I write to sing the praises of processed food... . Without food processed in traditional, healthy ways, mankind would have become extinct long ago."
So begins a post by Cynthia Harriman, Director of Food and Nutrition Strategies for Oldways, a Boston-based non-profit. Guest blogging for the promoter of "October: Unprocessed," she makes some really useful points that I think put the idea of "processed" food in perspective much better than most of the previous writers there have done. For millennia, perhaps even before settled agriculture, herdsmen processed fresh milk into yogurt and cheese harnessing natural and beneficial bacteria, she observes. Bacteria allowed processing of cabbage into Korean kimchi or German saurkraut.

"In fact," Harriman writes, "one of the common features of most traditional processing methods was this: they worked by encouraging the proliferation of good bacteria, which crowded out the dangerous bacteria that cause food to rot and that threaten our health and our lives."

I commented recently about October: Unprocessed -- people pledging to eat no processed food for 1 month. As I said here -- Why I'm not pledging anything about food -- arbitrarily limiting one's diet is a tricky thing. Processing food even with harmful chemicals has a long history -- consider the olive, cured in lye or else inedible. And the redefinition of beer, wine, and bread as "unprocessed" creates some questions in my mind.

I enjoyed reading Harriman's interpretation of traditional food processing, and respect her conclusion:
"It’s not realistic to sit in the middle of a field or orchard and eat foods just as they come off the stalk or the branch. We all love the convenience of modern foods, but we want – and need – them with the health benefits and good taste of the old ways of food processing. The food companies that figure out how to offer us all of this, in one neat package, will have my food dollar, and, I suspect, that of many other people reading this blog."

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Good Local Food


Though the day was warm and beautiful, the sun sets early in October. So here is Lenny, grilling in the dark.


Chicken from Ernst Farm is available about once a month at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market -- and you have to order your chicken well in advance. Ernst Farm chicken has more flavor than any other chicken that I have found at the market or elsewhere (including Whole Foods' air-chilled chickens, which are good, but not that good). Some day I hope to visit the farm, which is around 45 minutes drive from here.

Today's chicken was quite large (over 4 lb.) and we spatchcocked it (that is, cut out the backbone and flattened it, using skewers to hold it in place on the grill and bring heat to the inside of the meat.

Fresh rosemary was available at another of my favorite market stalls this morning. I cut it up, inserted under the skin, and sprinkled the rest on the chicken along with a little orange juice and oil. Lenny patiently grilled the chicken, burning the rosemary stems and unused leaves -- this takes quite a while. He also grilled some eggplants that I used for baba ganoush.


The result was subtle and delicious.

The first frost seems to be rather late this year. Raspberries, tomatoes, peppers, herbs, and other items that are often out of season by October are still on sale at the market. Besides chicken, herbs, eggplant, beautiful little raspberries, tomatoes, and peppers, I bought apples and a blue pumpkin -- though it looks greenish in the yellow indoor light in the photo. The woman who sold it to me said that her blue pumpkins were good to eat, as well as making unusual jack-o-lanterns. The orange pumpkin is also local, and sold as a "pie pumpkin."


Yes, that's a pomegranate in the basket too, mainly for decoration.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Green peppercorns are not local


Green peppercorns – the unripe form of black peppercorns -- originated in Madegascar, a former French colony, and from there made it to France where I first encountered them. Some time in the early 70s, my friend Michelle in France served us steak with green peppercorns. She had evidently learned about them on a trip to Africa, and they were at the time popular with French cooks.

Yesterday, I wrote about some of the goals and limitations of confining one's food choices to locally grown food (see Local Eating). One big advantage of a wider geographic scope for cooking, I think, is that food is a very interesting window into other cultures. Without visiting Michelle, I probably wouldn't have known about green peppercorns and their African-French connections. When I returned home, my experiments with this new spice continued to provide a sense of adventure, at least in cooking and eating. (In her blog Gherkins & Tomatoes, food writer Cynthia Bertelsen touched on this recently. See Is Cooking Necessary?)

People have been broadening their horizons with new foods for thousands of years. For example, the Romans had spice routes overland and by sea to obtain black peppercorns, which were then distributed all over their European empire. Pepper, oranges, lemons, chocolate, tea -- as common as they've become, these foods give us a connection to their exotic native lands. Eating in a Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Israeli, or even a French restaurant connects us to another place. While it might be silly to buy a Mexican tomato while Michigan tomatoes are in season, a pledge to eat nothing but local food would diminish my cultural awareness, I think.

Shortly after our dinner at Michelle's home in a Paris suburb, green peppercorns became a sort of fad among American cooking magazines and newspaper columns, and I collected several recipes using them. However, green peppercorns seem to have lost their popular edge recently. Last month I wanted to revisit some of those green peppercorn recipes, and could not find the kind I like in any local food shops (not even Zingerman's had the little cans or jars of green peppercorns in brine), so I bought a dozen cans from And I've been trying both old and new recipes, and giving my surplus cans to friends.

Two of my retro recipes from the seventies:

Michelle's Steak with Green Peppercorns

Broil or charcoal grill a steak. For each person allow about 6 oz of meat, and for each one, allow 1/2 tablespoon butter and 1 tsp. green peppercorns. In a mortar, crush the green peppercorns. (Green peppercorns are often preserved in vinegar or brine. In this form, they are rather soft: to use them, you normally start by draining and then crushing them in a mortar.) Add a few drops of cognac and mash. Then cream in the butter. Optionally add 1 tsp. French Dijon mustard such as Maille brand mustard. Spread the butter mixture on each steak, and serve quickly before all the butter melts.

Pork Chops with Mustard and Green Peppercorn Sauce

8 center-cut pork chops, about 1/2 lb. each
1/2 c. flour
1 tsp. paprika
1 Tbs. oil
2/3 c. finely diced carrots
1 bay leaf
2/3 c. finely diced onion
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 sprig fresh thyme or 1/2 tsp. dried
1 c. dry white wine
1 c. chicken broth
1 Tbs. Dijon mustard
1 Tbs. finely chopped parsley
1 Tbs. green peppercorns
2 Tbs. capers
Sprinkle the chops on both sides with salt and pepper to taste. Dredge in a mixture of the flour and paprika. Heat the oil in a heavy skillet and brown the chops, about 5 min to a side. Pour off fat and sprinkle chops with onion, carrots, garlic, bay leaf, thyme. Add wine and broth and cover. Cook over low heat 1 hour (for the newer, leaner pork, probably a shorter cooking time -- I last made this in the seventies and pork has changed). Remove chops. Stir mustard into pan drippings and bring just to boil, but do not boil. Add remaining ingredients and pour sauce over chops. Serves 8.

Other Uses for Green Peppercorns

  • Add green peppercorns to vinaigrette dressing – crush a tsp. of peppercorns with salt, pepper, and mustard, then add 2 parts olive oil to 1 part wine vinegar; wisk together. Toss with green salad, tomatoes, or avocados.
  • Use them with white wine, for poaching fish fillets. Make a poaching liquid by simmering wine and water with green peppercorns and some dried or fresh herbs like parsley or tarragon. After poaching the fish, finish the sauce with a swirl of butter.
  • Crush the green peppercorns with garlic, a bit of oil, and fresh or dried herbs as a coating for a roast (see photo), or you can roll the mixture inside of a rolled roast such as a turkey roast. After the roast comes out of the oven, you can use the coating, pan drippings, and some wine to make a sauce for the meat.

Once you taste them, you’ll realize in which dishes you would like to replace black peppercorns with green peppercorns.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Local Eating

Support local agriculture. Eat fresher, better food. Reduce your carbon footprint. You can do virtuous things if you accept the promise of local food consumption and become a locavore. If we were all locavores, eating only what grows near our homes, what a wonderful world it would be -- except that there isn't enough local food for the entire population of most heavily populated areas. I've been thinking about the limitations and benefits of eating locally without going to extremes. I'm trying to understand the broader implications and tradeoffs.

The most obvious sacrifice for people who commit to all or mainly local eating in harsh climates like Michigan is that only a limited selection of foods is available. Dairies operate year-around. Most vegetables and fruits are seasonal and perishable, but you can store potatoes and onions for winter pretty easily. If you have a big freezer, you can store local spring lamb and summer chicken. If you have plenty of time, you can smoke your own bacon, make jam, and freeze or can vegetables or fruit (though I've always wondered, what is the advantage of home-canning or freezing over good-quality commercial products?) I don't know if you can get enough grain products in all local markets -- if you are strictly local, that's another compromise. In any case, by March you'll be in the traditional hard place that used to be the lot of everyone who lived in the north.


And, as everyone knows, up here in the north we don't grow chocolate, tropical fruit, coffee, olives, and so on. As totally committed locavores, we'll be back to hoping Santa will put an orange or a little package of dates in the toe of our stockings, as he did in the 19th century before railroads brought abundant citrus fruit to northern climates. Are people sure they want to return to the past so totally?

The limitations are easy to see, but the benefits you get from sticking to local food (and rejecting what seemed like such miracles to our ancestors: orange juice every day!) are also in need of analysis.

If you seek good-tasting local food, you will find it: no question, if you need to rediscover seasonal produce, you have a treat in store. An in-season Michigan apple of a variety you like always beats a Washington Delicious apple, which may have spent months in a warehouse. The trade-off comes in winter when lots of non-local food will tempt you. Olives, coffee, imported wine, pecans, and chocolate taste just as good in Michigan as they do closer to their origin. Bananas, pineapples, and papayas might be better if you are close to the trees, but they travel pretty well too. You might eventually find the limited diet monotonous and the winters overwhelming if you commit to a completely local diet.

If you want to eat healthfully, you can find good options among locally grown foods. If you buy from a local small-scale farmer, you may find very fresh fruit and vegetables grown without excesses of pesticides and other chemicals. The role of such food in ensuring good health is unproven, but other health benefits might be available. For example, fresher eggs from small-scale local chicken farmers seem to be less salmonella-prone, for reasons that are not entirely understood -- maybe the less-stressed chickens have better immune systems (speculative from various articles I've read). This is another very complex food issue, especially as "organic" is now a government-controlled term dictated by some of the big agriculture interests that the original organic food movement was fighting.

Does local food cost less? You might save money if you buy large baskets of local fruit or vegetables at the peak of the season and freeze or can them yourself, but it's challenging, takes time, and has high start-up costs. (I'm not prepared to tackle the economics of raising your own food in your backyard or a grow plot elsewhere.) Also, mass agriculture is often so efficient that its products are cheaper than anything else, even including shipping costs -- if you care about nothing but price, local food will be of little interest to you.

When people talk about local food they almost always mean small-scale production, even if they live close to giant industrial farming operations. Certainly, the farmers who sell their own produce at farmers' markets often raise food as a small family endeavor. As a result, you avoid both the ecological issues of mass agriculture and the issues of poorly-treated farm workers. If you buy directly from farmers, you often meet most of the people who were involved in raising your food. If you buy meat from them, they are most likely raising animals on a relatively small scale, avoiding all the issues of feedlots, crowded conditions, waste runoff, pollution of waterways, etc. Encouraging small-scale agriculture seems to be a good goal in itself, even if the products were shipped out of the neighborhood.

A big claim for local food is its smaller "carbon footprint" -- that is, the amount of carbon emissions produced to grow it and bring it to your table. A local tomato (for instance) might have a lower carbon footprint than a Mexican tomato that made a long diesel-fueled and refrigerated trek across the continent. But if the local weather isn't good and the local tomato grew in an artificially heated greenhouse, maybe not so much. Compare local apples with distantly-grown oranges (or with bananas or papayas) and you are in tricky territory. Compare emissions from organic farming to those from conventional agriculture and there are many problems. Food writers have expended reams of paper (or whatever the electronic equivalent is) debating whether local food is generally better for the global environment and even whether more efficient production in just the right climate can make up for the fuel used to transport the produce.

So much for the claimed benefits. They aren't all hype, clearly, though hype may play a role in some of the most flamboyant locavore antics. When a trendy restaurant claims to serve exclusively local food, it might be just a gimmick, ignoring the bigger issues or even ignoring any serious issues.

One final critique of locavorism is that it's a luxury for people with lots of choices and plenty of money. Inner city residents in many locales have no conveniently-located food markets of any kind, no access to fresh produce, and at times few options other than fast food. For the poorest people, processed and packaged foods provide more calories than any fresh fruit or vegetables, local or not. Americans using food stamps are often shut out of farmers' markets, because the farmers can't jump through all the hoops required to accept food stamps. (That might become a less important issue as the Republicans are promising to cut food stamps if elected next month.) Like many food decisions, the choice of eating local food is only relevant if you have money and options.

Some cities such as L.A. are attempting to bring local produce to inner city residents in an affordable way. A task force is advocating "the creation of a regional food system that would increase low-income residents' access to healthy food and outlets for farmers' products while keeping more food dollars in the local economy." I think this might be one of the most positive ideas to come out of the locavore movement.

The decision to favor local food -- or to eat it exclusively -- has been widely publicized and debated. In Animal Vegetable Miracle Barbara Kingsolver promoted such commitment describing how she spent a year eating only local food while living on a farm in Virginia. She and her family spent a lot of time putting food away for winter, they were willing to give up many favorite non-local products, and they owned their farm. When Alice Waters lined up local farmers to supply her restaurant with special produce and when she founded "The Edible Schoolyard," she inspired some real changes in the way at least a few people eat at least sometimes. In newspaper food sections and in blogs, the idea is debated or promoted constantly.

The message of the locavores has many promises beyond seeking good-tasting food with some sort of fundamental naturalness. Do you hope for less destruction of fragile environments? more responsible use of energy and natural resources? encouragement of smaller farms, fairer labor practices, better animal treatment, or more social responsibility? Opting for local food might seem a panacea for many social ills. Maybe a single idea can't solve all these problems, but I think the focus on local food might be a good start.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Why I'm not pledging anything about food

The food blog Eating Rules is the inventor of "October: Unprocessed" a movement for people to pledge to eat only unprocessed food during this month. Food writers at both the N.Y.Times (Blogger Kicks Off A Month Without Processed Foods) and the L.A.Times (Yea or nay: Are you taking the unprocessed challenge?) have featured this effort in their food blogs, and hundreds of individuals (bloggers or not) have pledged to make the effort.

I respect this blogger for his commitment to encouraging people to eat healthier food. I especially respect his flexible definition:
Unprocessed food is any food that could be made by a person with reasonable skill in a home kitchen with readily available, whole-food ingredients.
Beer, wine, many sweets without refined sugar or HFCS, and many packaged foods are capable of fitting this definition, depending on how they are produced. In addition, he writes: "Maybe you’re not comfortable with my definition of 'unprocessed.' That’s okay, too. Decide what it means to you and take the pledge on your terms."

Recently, (Food Issues) I tried to summarize reasons for which people that choose food: taste, health, cost, and concerns of social justice, the global environment, animal welfare, and religious taboos. I believe that every theoretical food decision -- like buying only unprocessed food, not specific choices like do you want a tomato or a hamburger for lunch -- involves trade-offs.

Deciding to eat unprocessed food ignores many of the other principles for choosing one's diet. There's nothing wrong with it, and it may even be virtuous -- but I prefer to try to consider more of the tradeoffs when I make theoretical decisions.

Some examples:
  • A particular type of tuna may fit a definition of unprocessed but hunting wild tuna may be extinguishing the species.
  • If you cut down the rain forest or destroy a wetland to produce unprocessed beef or farmed shrimp, you may be doing more harm than is done by other means of production.
  • An egg may be unprocessed but full of salmonella because of unscrupulous farming practices. And an egg labeled "organic" may come from chickens in henhouses that are as crowded and dirty as the henhouses that produce other eggs. Bad for chickens. Bad for workers. But unprocessed.
  • Less-processed fruit sugars may not be any better for your health than refined white sugar in small quantities -- maybe a spoonful of sugar isn't the worst thing you can choose.
  • A freshly-baked loaf of bread from a local bakery may have more appeal in taste and even in cost than one that's less-processed but from far away.
  • Or to quote a recent article consider "... the myths that everyone who is complicit in the success of Big Agriculture -- from the Con Agras and the Smithfields of the world on down to the meat market manager who claims his products are local when they're clearly not, just to make a sale -- perpetrates on average folks who are just trying to eat well."
Every one of these is a complex issue with more than one reason for making a choice.

Playing games with pledging to eat a limited diet for a while also seems selfish. I think the inward-looking view about one's own welfare might detract from awareness of people who can't afford to make such indulgent choices. Recent research has suggested that children with access to good-tasting fresh fruit and vegetables are less likely statistically to suffer from obesity and its many health issues. Children in the "Edible Schoolyard" project showed several indications of better health than similar children in comparable school environments without such a program. Poverty is probably the most important reason why people eat badly, and if you aren't poor you are really lucky.

I'm not a perfect -- or even a good -- example of social responsibility, global environmental conscientiousness, or healthful eating. But I try to keep a wider perspective, and not get focused just on what I'm eating right now.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Food Issues

Why do we eat what we eat? As children, we learn what we like to eat and what we fear to eat. But growing up, we think of more and more reasons to choose one type of food over another. Every time I buy a can of tuna I worry about what I might be doing to the environment and whether my decision has an impact. Every time I choose between cage-free or ordinary eggs I wonder whether this is important. Do I go to the Farmers Market? Like most Americans, I seek out milk without hormones, and try to avoid beef or chicken treated with hormones. I find it sad that big, dishonest producers took over the term "organic" and then encouraged a diluted legal definition of it, leaving small honest farmers in the dust.

As I thought about all these issues, I tried to work out a list of categories for making food choices. Here is my list:

Taste is the first driver for what we want to eat. A few foods may taste good to everyone, or nearly everyone, but the old expressions "no accounting for taste" and "do not dispute taste" apply to food, so I'm not going to try to discuss this choice.

Health is a reason that everyone agrees on: food should promote good health and maybe even long life. Above all we want our food to be clean and wholesome so as not to cause disease. From there, not much agreement, except maybe that we should all eat our vegetables. Scientific studies to date are are not definitive in telling us what constitutes a good or balanced diet. Can you be healthy if you are fat, or should you limit your caloric intake? Do "natural" foods promote health more than "industrial" foods? How much sugar is too much? Which additives, industrially created foods (like HFCS), genetically modified plants or animals, and chemicals are safe, which are bad, which are truly toxic? Are organic foods better for us? Allergies are real, but fear of them may lead to irrational behavior. Also real: contamination of eggs with salmonella, spinach with e-coli, and Chinese milk with industrial poisons.

Cost of food is an issue for many people. In the extreme, people may even have to put cost concerns above issues of taste and health. All the choices on my list from here on are considered luxuries for people in our society who can't afford expensive preferences, such as fair-trade coffee, organic vegetables and fruits, or net-caught tuna fish. Unscrupulous industrial food producers have made the situation even worse by violating even the most basic laws to make foods cheaper (such as the recent Iowa egg debacle). In other countries, food scarcity is much worse than here.

Social justice is a food issue because farm workers in the US and abroad, employees of chicken-processing plants and similar industries, and many others who work on our food are poorly paid and badly treated. We may have a bad conscience about food insufficiency in the third world, while not being able to affect it through food choices. Similarly, political motivations and machinations have lead to over-fattening school lunches and have made unhealthy food the cheapest and easiest food to obtain.

The global environment, including climate change, is a major issue in food decisions. What is the impact of mass agriculture, transport of foods over long distances, attempts to grow foods in inappropriate environments, and potential exhaustion of resources? Major environmental issues:
  • Big farms vs. small farms and eating local farm products instead of long-haul products are key issues for many people. The idea of a carbon footprint, or how much fuel does it take to raise food and bring an item to your table, is an effort to measure the impact on the environment and use of resources. The freshness, healthfulness, and tastiness of local and also of organic produce also plays a role in the choice of big-small or distant-local.
  • Pollution from many types of agriculture is another part of the same problem. Pesticides, feed-lot runoff, cattle near the spinach fields, etc. are all recognized dangers both to the environment and to food production. Pollution of food from other eco-disasters is also an issue, such as the impact of the Gulf oil spill on shellfish.
  • Genetically modified foods are beginning to be recognized as a danger to the environment -- for example, pesticide-resistant genes recently discovered to be escaping from GMO crops into nearby weeds.
  • Overfishing and overuse of the oceans is a source of many possible risks to the world food supply and the environment. Choosing which fish to eat is becoming more and more fraught as we read of the impact of mass fisheries, irresponsible and greedy behavior (such as using huge nets that kill unwanted or disallowed species), and the near-extinction of more and more species.
Animal welfare worries vegetarians and also many meat eaters. What constitutes ill-treatment of animals? Should humans cage them, slaughter them, hunt them, or take their milk, honey, or eggs?

Religious taboos are among the oldest dietary issues. Jews may have the oldest and most complicated set of laws for what to eat, but Seventh-Day Adventists, Mormons, Methodists, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and others also dictate dietary limitations. Some religious thinkers are combining religious food taboos with concerns for social justice, so this might be a more important issue in the future for religious people.

I only wish there were something so simple that I could do to make my own food choices easier and address at least some of these problems.