The start of NPR’s special series on coffee yesterday couldn’t have been more timely for me, since I just got back from a trip that included several days in Seattle. (For the record, I walked past but not into the first Starbucks; more on my West coast trip coming soon.)
As science reporter Dan Charles describes,
Coffee is more than a drink. For many of us — OK, for me — it’s woven into the fabric of every day.
It also connects us to far corners of the globe.
For instance, every Friday, a truck pulls up to the warehouse of , a small roaster and coffee distributor in Durham, N.C., and unloads a bunch of heavy burlap sacks.
On any random day, that truck could bring “10 bags from a farm in El Salvador; 20 bags from a cooperative in Burundi; two bags of a special coffee from Guatemala,” says Kim Elena Ionescu, one of the coffee buyers for Counter Culture Coffee. She travels the world, visiting coffee farms and deciding which beans the company will buy.
Find the first installment (audio, text, photos) here, this morning’s entry here, and a lovely NPR coffee quiz here. For the rest of the series rolling out in the next day or so, keep an eye on NPR’s food blog, The Salt.
In a pair of pieces for Harvest Public Media, Luke Runyon recently reported on food companies’ efforts to target influential consumers. As he writes,
Are you a middle-aged woman with kids at home and a penchant for cooking? To the potato industry, you’re “Linda.”
Do you like healthy snacks and small portions? To the almond growers of California, your name is “Jane.”
Have a taste for a more refined craft beer? Companies like Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors like to call you “Joe.”
These three people are fictional, but at the same time, they represent huge sections of the American population. They’re target consumers.
“You are what your food eats.” That’s the headline for this audio story from Harvest Public Media. In it, reporter Jessica Naudziunas visits two locations to report on livestock being fed their breakfast. The first stop is the University of Missouri’s Swine Teaching Facility, where the pigs get a carefully controlled diet comprised primarily of corn and soybean meal with some vitamin and mineral supplements. That’s not all pigs may be fed, though. As the report notes, per FDA regulations “if a feed producer wants to, polyethylene—plastic—can be used as a roughage replacement.” In the MU facility, the pigs’ feed includes rendered pig products (like bone and blood).
As described by MU Swine Nutrition Specialist Marcia Shannon, “When they process and slaughter pigs for market, we use everything out of that.” The report continues: “Pig blood is dried, cooked and then used as a supplement in the animal feed these pigs had for breakfast today. Shannon says it’s a cheap way to make the feed more digestible and protein rich. ‘What we’re trying to do is basically take a not very valuable protein source and convert it into a more valuable protein source, because we as humans aren’t going to eat blood—we’re not going to sit down and drink a bowl of blood soup, but you know, we’ll sit down and enjoy a nice bacon cheeseburger.’”
Talk about food for thought, huh? On the one hand, it seems not only reasonable but admirable to put every last bit of a slaughtered pig to use. And yet, there’s something creepily cannibalistic about feeding dried pigs blood back to pigs. And then there’s Shannon’s assertion that “as humans” we won’t eat animal blood. In fact, many cultures not only include animal blood as a protein source (including the traditional diet of the Maasai), but it’s the key ingredient in sausage and even soup in a host of world cuisines. While the typical modern American diet may not include animal blood as a protein source, that doesn’t make it’s consumption any more inhuman than eating “a nice bacon cheeseburger.”
The second half of the Harvest Public Media story makes a stop at Sally Angell’s cattle farm in Centralia, Missouri. Like the visit to the MU research facility, it’s an interesting and informative look at the raising of livestock. If you have a few minutes, give the story a listen.
The Conscientious Omnivore is away this week. This is an encore presentation of a post that originally appeared on December 5, 2011.
Last fall I posted about coverage in The New York Times of, as I wrote then, “the cause of a small but persistent number of deaths on U.S. farms each year: grain storage buildings, or—more accurately—employers’ failure to ensure that proper safety procedures are followed when workers are inside them.”
It was a great piece of reporting that helped bring to light needless and senseless worker deaths. I was glad to see the issue getting additional in-depth coverage last week from NPR and the Center for Public Integrity in a special series titled, “Buried In Grain.” A number of audio pieces from NPR’s Howard Berkes aired throughout the week, and print versions are available online. I highly recommend them. As reported in the first entry,
on a stifling hot day in July 2010, [14-year-old Wyatt] Whitebread joined his buddies Alex Pacas, 19, and Will Piper, 20, at the Haasbach LLC grain storage complex. Piper had begun working there the week before, and it was Pacas’ second day on the job.
The boys carried shovels and picks as they climbed a ladder four stories to the top of the grain bin, which was twice as wide and half-filled with 250,000 bushels of wet and crusty corn. Their job was to “walk down the grain,” or break up the kernels that clung to the walls and clogged the drainage hole at the bottom of the bin.
The work went well at first, with the boys shoveling corn toward a cone-shaped hole at the center of the bin. But around 9:45 a.m., Whitebread began sinking in the corn. He was sucked under in minutes and disappeared. Pacas and Piper also began to sink and desperately struggled to stay on the surface.
Six horrific hours later, only Piper was carried out alive.
The story details how simple safety precautions, which are required by current law, can prevent such tragedies. It also documents how ineffective the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has been at tackling this ongoing problem. As the report describes,
“At some point we’re going to have to decide whether these incidents are just accidental … [or] somebody’s really making horrendous decisions that approach a criminal level,” says [Bill] Field [a professor of agricultural and biological engineering] at Purdue, who is often enlisted as an expert witness in grain death lawsuits and as a safety consultant for the grain industry and OSHA.
“It’s intentional risk-taking on the part of the managers or someone in a supervisory capacity that ends up in some horrific incidents,” Field adds. “The bottom line is if you ask them why they did it, it was because it was more profitable to do it that way.”
Field counts more than 660 farmers and workers who suffocated in nearly 1,000 grain entrapments since 1964 at both commercial facilities and on farms. Nearly 500 died in grain bins. One in four victims was younger than 18.
Head to the home page of the series here , where you’ll find links to NPR’s four stories, photos, documents obtained in the investigation, and links to related reports from the Center for Public Integrity, the Kansas City Star, and Harvest Public Media.
This summer I offered up a brief post about quinoa, that nutrient-rich seed that’s consumed like a grain. The links I shared there included reporting on how the rising popularity of quinoa was making it difficult for native farmers in South America to afford the foodstuff themselves.
Today I offer a different look at the result of quinoa’s elevated profile. As Alastair Bland reports, farmers in the US are eying the possibilities of growing it here while weighing the potential problems:
[Kevin] Murphy [of Washington State University] says it’s already clear that quinoa can flourish and produce high yields in many parts of North America, and he sees “no reason why quinoa production won’t take off in the next few years.”
… Murphy says the quinoa craze is such a new phenomenon that farmers have hardly had a chance to react. As recently as six years ago, American shoppers could buy quinoa for the rice-like price of $1.50 per pound. Now, retailers get between $4.50 and $8 for every pound they sell of this nutrient-dense superfood.
So clearly, growing quinoa — which is actually the seed of the goosefoot plant (Chenopodium quinoa) — could be lucrative for American farmers, though only in cooler regions. Quinoa is very heat sensitive, and experienced gardeners say temperatures of 95 degrees will completely destroy a crop. Another challenge to producing quinoa is rain. If it falls during the autumn harvest time, it can ruin the crunchy, high-protein seeds by causing them to sprout.
Head here for the full piece.
Back in January I posted about the Greek yogurt craze (which I also mocked a bit in February). As I noted then, the process of producing Greek yogurt raises some environmental concerns. Last week Dan Charles of NPR took a look at one of the problems, i.e., what to do with the whey byproduct:
Unfortunately for Greek yogurt makers, their whey isn’t nearly as valuable as what you get from cheese-making. The whey from the Fage or Chobani factories contains fewer solids and is more acidic. So far, nobody’s figured out a way to make money from it.
What’s more, you can’t just dump it into some nearby river; that would be an environmental crime.
George Bevington, an engineer who deals with wastewater treatment in Johnstown, says the whey would set off a boom of sugar-eating bacteria, “and that means there’d be no oxygen left in the river, and that means there’d be no fishies left in the river!”
Whether or not you’re a fan of Greek yogurt, the story is worth checking out. Head here for the full audio, as well as a short text version and a link to the full transcript. Then, for additional links about Greek yogurt, check out my earlier post.
On the heels of my recent post about Wisconsin farmers—including cranberry growers—confronting climate change, yesterday the public radio program Marketplace ran a story considering what a warming planet means for cranberry crops, focusing on Massachusetts farmers. As Sarah Gardner reports,
Michael Hogan, CEO of A.D. Makepeace, a large cranberry grower based in Wareham, says for now cranberries are still a viable crop in Massachusetts. But climate change is making it much tougher to grow there.
“We’re having warmer springs, we’re having higher incidences of pests and fungus and we’re having warmer falls when we need to have cooler nights,” Hogan says.
Those changing conditions are costing growers like Makepeace money. The company has to use more water to irrigate in the hotter summers, and to cover the berries in spring and fall to protect them from frosts.
They’re also spending more on fuel to run irrigation pumps, and have invested heavily in technology to monitor the bogs more closely. It’s also meant more fungicides and fruit rot.
Head here for the full print and audio versions of the story, as well as photos.
Lard has been making a comeback in recent years, so I learned today at the gym while listening to an episode of the public radio program The Splendid Table. (Yes, I was working out while enjoying a conversation about lard!) The episode’s first guest was Charleston chef Sean Brock, who is described as “part of the lardcore movement, respecting southern tradition and using all parts of a pig.” (Surely no one says or types lardcore with a straight face, right?) Like many nose-to-tail chefs, Brock seeks to use all parts of the heritage breed pigs that he serves in his restaurant, including the rendered fat. He has a nice conversation with host Lynne Rossetto Kasper; find it here.
For more on the reemergence of lard, consider this excerpt of Regina Schrambling’s article at Slate,
I’m convinced that the redemption of lard is finally at hand because we live in a world where trendiness is next to godliness. And lard hits all the right notes, especially if you euphemize it as rendered pork fat—bacon butter.
Lard has clearly won the health debate. Shortening, the synthetic substitute foisted on this country over the last century, has proven to be a much bigger health hazard because it contains trans fats, the bugaboo du jour. Corporate food scientists figured out long ago that you can fool most of the people most of the time, and shortening (and its butter-aping cousin, margarine) had a pretty good ride after Crisco was introduced in 1911 as a substitute for the poor man’s fat. But shortening really vanquished lard in the 1950s when researchers first connected animal fat in the diet to coronary heart disease. By the ’90s, Americans had been indoctrinated to mainline olive oil, but shortening was still the go-to solid fat over lard or even butter in far too many cookbooks.
Her full piece is a nice read, so check it out here. Then, for more on the roles Upton Sinclair, William Procter and James Gamble played a century ago in removing lard from the American diet, check out this piece from Robert Smith of NPR’s Planet Money team.
Finally, check out this essay from Pete Wells at Food & Wine. As he expounds in the opening,
When I turn to the Op-Ed page of the New York Times, I more or less know what I’ll find…. The last thing I expect to see is an engraved invitation to eat french fries and fried chicken, yet that is roughly what I got one day last summer.
Extending this astonishing offer was the food writer Corby Kummer. [Read Kummer's 2005 NYT op-ed here.] In response to the news that New York City’s health commissioner had asked local restaurants to stop using cooking oils containing trans fats, comparing them to such hazards as lead and asbestos, Kummer proposed that we bring back lard, “the great misunderstood fat.” Lard, he cheerfully reported, contains just 40 percent saturated fat (compared with nearly 60 percent for butter). Its level of monounsaturated fat (the “good” fat) is “a very respectable 45 percent,” he noted, “double butter’s paltry 23 or so percent.” Kummer hinted that if I wanted to appreciate the virtues of this health food, I needed to fry shoestring potatoes or a chicken drumstick.
What did I know about lard? Bupkes.
Wells then reports how he sought out, rendered, and cooked away with lard eventually secured from a heritage breed. (As he notes, “The one-pound brick of lard in my corner bodega was hydrogenated … along with nearly all the commercial lard available in this country…. Unfortunately, hydrogenation is also the source of unwholesome trans fats, which shoot extra LDL cholesterol (the bad kind) into your arteries while batting away the other, good cholesterol.”) You can find his full piece here.
I’m often reminded by friends and family with kids that, as a parent, you “choose your battles” with your children, including sometimes (often?) what they eat. Parents and kids don’t always conflict, though. A recent piece from Harvest Public Media suggests that school districts will be facing complaints from some kids and parents as new federal school lunch guidelines go into effect:
Schools are making room for more fruits and vegetables on lunch trays by serving less meat and bread, and even curly fries. The nationwide changes are meant to counter childhood obesity, but some parents are complaining that their kids are still hungry after they clean their plates….
The new guidelines, the first from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in more than a decade, include maximum limits rather than just the longstanding minimum requirements for things like calories, meat, and vegetables. Lunches for high-school students, for example, must add up to at least 750 calories, but no more than 850. Limits on sodium and fat are being phased in. Also students must take at least one fresh fruit or vegetable.
Marlene Schwartz, deputy director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, supports the changes. She said a lack protein is not a nationwide problem, but obesity is.
Head here for the full audio and print versions of the story.
I just finished reading Gustavo Arellano‘s latest book, Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America. Arellano, author of the weekly syndicated column ¡Ask a Mexican!, takes readers on an enjoyable romp through the last couple centuries of Mexican-American food. As Michael Meyer describes in his review for the Columbia Journalism Review,
[the book] is part culinary history, part travelogue, and part extended essay on the various accidents and ironies of colonialism that caused Mexican food to, as the book’s subtitle puts it, “conquer” America. It’s a fun read worthy of the burrito-loving masses—and a thoughtful examination of America’s simultaneous hunger for and fear of the influence of other cultures.
Praise for the book from Meyer and Jim Sherman at the Houston Chronicle is tempered a bit in L.V. Anderson’s take at Slate: I found myself agreeing with Anderson’s main critique—Arellano’s book is wider than it is deep, in both substance and analysis—but also with Anderson’s final conclusion, i.e., “the book still has a lot to offer.”
For more, check out the reviews linked above and this piece from NPR, in which Carolina Miranda and Arellano follow the “California taco trail” from Cielito Lindo in Los Angeles to Milta Cafe in San Bernardino (across the street from what would become the original Taco Bell) to Alebrije’s Grill Taco Truck in Santa Ana.
Then catch this episode of public radio’s On Point (audio available below) that features Arellano on the occasion of Taco USA’s publication this spring. Head to the On Point episode page for a sneak peak at the book’s introduction, too.
Finally, head to this short piece by Arellano (from Saveur’s recent Mexico issue) on the burritos of his parents’ Mexican home and a primer on the history of the burrito’s transformation north of the border:
Whereas their Americanized children had grown up on burritos, the ones in Ahumada were the first my folks actually enjoyed. The burrito to them was as alien as a Korean taco; being from Zacatecas, where corn tortillas are the norm, they hadn’t even tasted the flour variety until migrating to California in the 1960s. The American obsession with the food bewildered them—the ones we ate in the States were as Mexican as Doritos. But in Villa Ahumada, my parents were happy to feed on burritos because, well, that’s what everybody ate. To them, Ahumada was the place where America became Mexico, and Mexico became America; the burrito was the food that embodied that in-between place.
I recommend the essay as a nice preview of what you can expect from the full-length Taco USA. Happy reading/listening/eating!