A few weeks ago, L.V. Anderson had a great piece at Slate about that most ubiquitous of contemporary food metaphors. As she describes,
Saying that a food is “like crack” … is intended to be an edgy way of emphasizing how instantly gratifying it is, and how difficult it is to stop eating it once it’s in front of you. Unfortunately, all it really does is demonstrate how out of touch and callously classist foodie culture has become….
Crack is the drug metaphor of choice among food worshipers precisely because it’s alien to them. To someone who swoons over a “crack cookie,” crack is an abstraction, a vague stand-in for “intense, addictive pleasure.” These foodies never consider the fact that crack abuse is a devastating problem for some people, because they never have to.
For the full post, which includes some fantastic links, head here.
Twilight Greenaway, the food editor at Grist from 2011 to 2012, wrote a really nice piece about the danger of smug, break-your-arm-from-patting-your-own-back-so-hard food righteousness that plagues a small minority most of the time and the rest of us thoughtful eaters at least some of the time. As she describes,
I wrote a post about a campaign by the Consumer’s Union to convince several major grocery chains to stop carrying meat from animals raised with antibiotics, and one commenter said, “GO VEGAN.”
These comments make perfect sense. If you want to see less support for factory farms, I think going vegan can be a great choice (this is not an anti-vegan rant). But it doesn’t really matter what the post is about. There will generally always be someone, if not many people, there to tell us that this or that huge systematic problem shouldn’t bother, let alone interest, them because they’ve already taken their “five easy steps” to fix it on a personal level. And more often than not, I find that people’s gut responses to stories that fall into the “food politics” category fail to reflect the fact that food is both personal and the product of industry, public policy, and a whole host of systems that we have the opportunity to look critically at (and, in doing so — ideally — change).
For a very long time our food system was essentially opaque, so individual choice was all most of us had. And I certainly understand that not everyone will care about the amazing array of tools for connecting the dots from personal to systemic change. But I’d argue that if we practice the former without the latter, sooner or later we’ll end up in a safe but limiting cul-de-sac where very little actually happens.
The full piece is great food for thought and includes some super links, so check it out here.
The Conscientious Omnivore is away. This is an encore presentation of a post that originally appeared in slightly edited form on July 19, 2012.
Thanks to Civil Eats, I discovered this article by Brie Mazurek for the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture, which operates the San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. She profiles farmers on the California coast who raise fruits and vegetables without any irrigation, a process known as dry farming. As she writes,
David Little of Little Organic Farm has had to adapt to water scarcity in Marin and Sonoma Counties, where most farmers and ranchers rely on their own reservoirs, wells, and springs, making them particularly vulnerable in years with light rainfall. Through a technique known as dry farming, Little’s potatoes and squash receive no irrigation, getting all of their water from the soil.
Mediterranean grape and olive growers have dry-farmed for thousands of years. The practice was common on the California coast from the 1800s through the early 20th century, but it became a lost art during the mid-century. Today, it is experiencing a modest resurgence along the coast, where temperate, foggy summers offer ideal conditions for dry farming grapes, tomatoes, potatoes, cucumbers, melons, grains, and some tree fruit….
Deprived of any surface irrigation besides the coastal fog, dry-farmed plants develop deep, robust roots to seek out and soak up soil moisture. Because they absorb less water than their conventionally irrigated counterparts, dry-farmed crops are characteristically smaller but more nutrient-dense and flavorful.
It’s a fascinating read, and includes some great links and photos, so check out the full piece here.
The Conscientious Omnivore is away. This is an encore presentation of a post that originally appeared in slightly edited form on August 16, 2012.
The Ethicist column at The New York Times held its first essay contest last year on why it’s ethical to eat meat.
As described by columnist Ariel Kaminer, thousands of submissions came in, which were whittled down to 29 semi-finalists, from which the judges’ panel (an esteemed but entirely male group comprising Mark Bittman, Jonathan Safran Foer, Andrew Light, Michael Pollan, and Peter Singer) selected six finalists.
Readers had a chance to vote for the one they believed best made the case for meat eating. I read all the thought-provoking pieces and was glad that I did. Since they’re fairly short (600 words or less), it didn’t take long to read them all. Head here to check out the finalists’ entries yourself.
The judges’ selection for winner appeared in The New York Times Magazine on May 6, 2012. You can read it online here.
The Conscientious Omnivore is away. This is an encore presentation of a post that originally appeared in slightly edited form on April 23, 2012.
NPR’s food blog, The Salt, featured this piece about Andrew Plotsky, a former vegan who went on to study traditional butchering and establish a multimedia production outfit, Farmrun. As he describes it, “Farmrun is one of the first dedicated agricultural production studios in the country. It is our intention to serve the needs of the burgeoning agrarian renaissance by producing beautiful media for agricultural enterprises and organizations.” Read the NPR piece, check out the Farmrun website, and catch some of his work on Vimeo, like this brief calling card or the much lengthier piece linked to by NPR.
The Conscientious Omnivore is away. This is an encore presentation of a post that originally appeared in slightly edited form on February 3, 2012.
Felisa Rogers published a series of articles in Salon under the umbrella heading, “Heirlooms.” In the essays, she takes us into the kitchens of women and men sharing recipes and stories of the extended families from which they come. Rogers explores the community-building and meaning-making involved when we carry with us foods and recipes from our forebears that then get passed on to the generations that follow. Her essays savor the complicated ways that our rich family histories can sometimes become intertwined with our food memories and our culinary traditions. As a nice touch, each article concludes with a recipe.
The opening piece explores “an 82-year-old Mennonite turned Berkeley artist” and a German-by-way-of-Ukraine-and-Kansas recipe for flinsen, a thin crepe-like pancake. Rogers’s own family gets examined in the second installment, which focuses on her mother-in-law’s recipe for nut butter balls, known elsewhere as Russian teacakes. Another feature includes one of my favorite quotes, probably because it echoes a simple lesson I learned from my mom about family traditions (“Things change”); the piece focuses on a family’s longstanding annual homemade doughnut party:
When I ask Jan her secret for surviving the long hours and the tumult of a large family, she says that her tongue is calloused from biting it, but then admits that her son-in-law probably feels the same way. This year they argued over the doughnut party. Lou wanted to serve cocktails and other types of fried food such as deep-fried cheese curds and calamari. Jan was resistant to modifying her family tradition. Now she concedes that Lou’s idea wasn’t so bad. “Isn’t that how traditions always are? Don’t they always change? For me the nucleus of the doughnuts is the family. And what that family looks like and when it happens … that’s where all the change happens.”
The fourth entry in the series, about an Irish family that expanded to include Italian Aunt Rosie in 1914 when tension between those ethnicities was particularly fierce, features my other favorite quote as Rogers helps to cook up a batch of Aunt Rosie’s chicken parm:
Despite making a huge mess in the kitchen, Tom is not a haphazard cook. He takes his time as he slices each chicken breast into cutlets, and then dips the meat in eggs and bread crumbs. He’s a more precise cook than I am — his every motion betrays the typical New York obsession with exact culinary tradition. When I suggest we could use a preexisting bag of panko to coat the chicken filets for the Parmesan, he looks horrified. “No,” he says decisively. “We need the cheap stuff.”
I enjoyed reading and recommend all of the essays. Rogers has an engaging style that’s both curious and reflective. That said, occasionally she seems to romanticize the past, while at other times she can come off as jarringly critical of modern locavores who advocate a return to the sort of saner, more sustainable food system that she so admires from days gone by. In the following quote, from this an essay about an octogenarian who grew up on a small farm in northwest Wisconsin, she manages to do both:
Today’s effete foodie would salivate at the food that graced Carol’s childhood table: pork chops from local pigs, garden-fresh parsnips and salad greens, homemade bread and fresh butter. Her life story reminds me of an important fact: We haven’t been this way for long. Living people, indeed relatively spry living people, remember a time when the industrial food chain was not a matter of course. A time when you knew where your food came from, a time when the command to “eat local” would have seemed laughable, a time when farm to table was not a political statement but common sense. I doubt Carol has heard of Michael Pollan, and she would be unlikely to agree with his points in the manner that he presents them. But her life reflects an attitude about food that is not so out of pace with his supposedly liberal values: She takes delight in vegetables; she sees the value of gardening; she’s not above enjoying a glass of wine with dinner; she eschews boxed food in favor of baking and cooking from scratch.
Even here though, I still appreciate the writing and how it makes this effete foodie think.
The Conscientious Omnivore is away. This is an encore presentation of a post that originally appeared in slightly edited form on March 27, 2012. Rogers herself made the following comment on that post: “Thanks for reading and for your kind words and thoughtful analysis. I really do have respect for you effete foodies, you know! If anything, I’m making fun of myself as well.”
For more, check out the full story.
Some vegetarian food is getting a makeover. It’s being made to look, feel and taste more like meat. The industry is looking to latch on to a new group of eaters: ‘Flexitarians,’ health conscious, mostly young consumers who are cutting back on meat in their diets. Some cut out almost all meat, others cut out just a little. With over 44 percent of American eaters aged 18-29 choosing to eat a meatless meal at least once a week, according to market research firm Innova Insights, the strategy makes sense. If more people are looking to cut down on meat – but not give it up all together – create vegetarian products that taste like the food consumers are used to.
Over the last couple years, J and I have made occasional use of meat-substitutes including Tofurky peppered deli slices and several Gardein products, especially the crispy tenders. (Gardein’s award-winning packaging very much speaks to young adults accustomed to clean, modern design thanks to brands as varied as Apple, Ikea, and Target.) Like similar meat-based convenience foods, these products are, well, convenient! With a few accompaniments (e.g., bread, cheese, mustard, and lettuce or spinach make a nice Tofurky sandwich, and a little BBQ sauce is all the crispy tenders need), we just add a quick side or two (e.g., cut carrots, frozen veggies, canned baked beans) for a nearly instantaneous meal. Nevertheless, lately I’ve been thinking about limiting these vegan-friendly products in our diets for two reasons.
First, although low on the food chain, these are highly processed foods that are the result of clever food science rather than simple cooking with whole foods. As such, they violate two of the wise principles that Michael Pollan outlines in his book, In Defense of Food: “Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food,” and its related food rule, “Avoid food products containing ingredients that are a) unfamiliar, b) unpronounceable, c) more than five in number, or that include d) high-fructose corn syrup.” That said, Tofurky’s main ingredients are wheat protein and organic tofu, with the rest of the list mostly comprehensible (e.g., garbanzo bean flour, cracked peppercorns, lemon juice from concentrate, onion, celery). That’s a heck of a lot better than, say, the so-called ground beef at Taco Bell, which in addition to items like beef, tomato powder, sugar, and soybean oil also includes disodium inosinate, disodium guanylate, and trehalose. (Say what?)
Second, most of these faux-meat products are made primarily with conventionally farmed rather than organic ingredients. Tofurky gets points for using organic tofu (and a couple non-GMO ingredients), but the rest are conventional. After water, the Gardein crispy tenders’ main ingredients are conventional soy and wheat byproducts, with just a few of the many other ingredients listed as organic. Small in number though they are, none of the ingredients in Upton’s seitan (another item we sometimes purchase) are organic. Similarly, none of the Boca burger varieties (including the couple made with non-GMO soy) contain a single organic ingredient.
So, while the food scientists may be after ways to create more appealing meat substitutes, I’m going to see if in our house we can we stick to things like organic legumes, whole grains, and tofu when we are looking for a substitute for local, pasture-raised meat. Thankfully, we can still turn to our locally made tofu walnut burgers when we need a quick and easy meal!
The Conscientious Omnivore is away. This is an encore presentation of a post that originally appeared in slightly edited form on March 17, 2012.
As part of Slate’s “Future of Food” series (which I first posted about here), Forbes contributor Nadia Arumugam reports on food manufacturers’ efforts to conduct taste tests with children and even babies. I’d never given much thought to how Lunchables came to be, but given that (as Arumugam notes) in 2011, “the brand’s dollar sales reached $569 million,” it makes perfect sense that Kraft would do everything it could to determine if it was a product worth launching, especially when plenty of food innovations—make that “food” innovations—fail. (Consider, for example, Heinz’s insanely colored “ketchup”, that had some initial success but eventually disappeared from the market.)
Head here for Arumugam’s Slate article, and check out her companion post at Forbes as well. They’re good food for thought, though I did find myself wishing she’d given us a full New Yorker-length piece that really took us deep inside the business of testing industrial foodstuffs on kids and babies.
The Conscientious Omnivore is away. This is an encore presentation of a post that originally appeared in slightly edited form on June 28, 2012.
One of the great food books that I read in the last year was White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf. Written by Aaron Bobrow-Strain, professor of politics at Whitman College, it’s a fascinating look at the history of industrialized bread in the US and the shifting sociological and cultural factors that influenced its production, marketing, and consumption from the 19th century to today. It’s well-researched and well-written, and much of the analysis — of concerns about purity and contamination, for example — is highly relevant to today’s food debates.
Portions of the book have also been adapted and/or excerpted in a number of pieces online, and all provide nice slices (pun intended) of the book.
- This essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education, entitled “What Would Great-Grandma Eat?”, takes a piece of Michael Pollan’s advice a bit too literally but poses a useful question: “… as I dug into the history of battles over bread, I realized that this whole nostalgic perspective had a bigger problem: What if Great-Grandmother was just as conflicted about food as we are?”
- This excerpt in The Believer looks at “Atomic Bread Baking at Home: A Yucatan-Based American Tries to Re-create the ’50s-Era Market-Tested USDA White Pan Loaf No. 1, and In Doing So Reveals How Today’s Miracle Food Can Become Tomorrow’s Catastrophe.”
- This excerpt at Salon focuses on “The rise and fall of white bread: [how] we learned to hate the processed loaves not just because of health — but because of class, status and race.”
- Finally, this piece at Huff Post Books taps similar themes about “How White Bread Became White Trash (And What This Tells Us About Food Justice and the American Economy).”
The Conscientious Omnivore is away. This is an encore presentation of a post that originally appeared in slightly edited form on May 26, 2012.
It’s the time of year when mules start showing up at grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and produce stands. Not actual mules, nor the refreshing Moscow Mule popularized by Oprah Winfrey*. No, I’m talking about seedless watermelons. Ever wonder how a plant with no seeds came to be? Or where those hard black seeds went? Well, the seeds got stopped before they could start, thanks to a little chemical intervention and some careful breeding.
As this “Ask a Scientist!” post from Cornell University explains,
Producing a seedless watermelon involves three steps. First, a plant is treated with colchicine, a substance that allows chromosomes to duplicate, but prevents the copies from being distributed properly to dividing cells. As a result, a plant with four sets of chromosomes is created, a “tetraploid.” In the second step, a tetraploid plant is crossed with a [regular] diploid to produce offspring that are … triploid, with three sets. They get half the number of chromosomes from each parent. Finally, the triploid seeds are grown into plants.
The triploid abnormality means that the watermelons can’t reproduce, so their seeds never mature and develop the hard black exterior like a diploid watermelon. As NPR’s Andrea Seabrook says in this piece, “it’s the watermelon version of a mule…. It can’t reproduce but it exists.”
For all the details, including why you still need diploid watermelon plants around for seedless triploids to bear fruit, check out the NPR story (audio or transcript) or the Cornell post. And if, like me, you find the average watermelon to be less flavorful than you’d like, keep an eye out for varieties like the wonderful Yellow Doll.
* If you haven’t yet learned the best way to squeeze a lime when there’s no juicer on hand, check out this video of Oprah in Yosemite making Moscow Mules with Gayle for their campsite neighbors. Honestly, J swears by her technique! (You can skip to minute mark 1:20 if you don’t want to first watch her comically try to figure out how to open a bottle of ginger beer.)
The Conscientious Omnivore is away. This is an encore presentation of a post that originally appeared in slightly edited form on July 26, 2012.