Tagged: Food

Whey overboard


Photo by tbiley via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

J recently forwarded a link me for an article in the new magazine Modern Farmer. In it, Justin Elliott considers the ever-growing amounts of industrial by-product resulting from America’s latest dairy dear, Greek yogurt. He writes,

For every three or four ounces of milk, Chobani and other companies can produce only one ounce of creamy Greek yogurt. The rest becomes acid whey. It’s a thin, runny waste product that can’t simply be dumped. Not only would that be illegal, but whey decomposition is toxic to the natural environment, robbing oxygen from streams and rivers. That could turn a waterway into what one expert calls a “dead sea,” destroying aquatic life over potentially large areas….

The scale of the problem—or opportunity, depending on who you ask—is daunting. The $2 billion Greek yogurt market has become one of the biggest success stories in food over the past few years and total yogurt production in New York nearly tripled between 2007 and 2013. New plants continue to open all over the country. The Northeast alone, led by New York, produced more than 150 million gallons of acid whey last year, according to one estimate.

And as the nation’s hunger grows for strained yogurt, which produces more byproduct than traditional varieties, the issue of its acid runoff becomes more pressing. Greek yogurt companies, food scientists, and state government officials are scrambling not just to figure out uses for whey, but how to make a profit off of it.

It’s a good read, with plenty of links, so check out the full story here. For more, have a look at my earlier posts on the subject here and here.

And, if you’ve still got time on your hands and are curious to read a couple interesting pieces on Modern Farmer magazine, check out Rebecca Rothbaum’s post for the Wall Street Journal and Andrea Crawford’s piece for Slate.

Pelmeni returning to downtown Madison

Russian Dumplings--Pelmeni

Photo by gzap via Flickr

Linda Falkenstein of Isthmus has some great news, Madison lovers of Pelmeni (aka Pel’meni):

Pel’meni, the Russian dumpling shop that operated out of 505 State Street in the mid-’00s, is coming back to downtown in mid-June at 201 W. Gorham St., a space next to AJ Bombers.

After the State Street storefront closed, Paul Schwoerer started serving his handmade pelmeni out of the Oasis Café, his coffee shop in at 2690 Research Park Dr. in Fitchburg. In the in-between time when the dumplings were not available at all, what might reasonably be called a cult following only deepened. And after the re-appearance, not all devotees could make the trek out to Fitchburg.

My earlier post about rediscovering the delicious dumplings (now featuring local produce) in Fitchburg has garnered hundreds and hundreds of hits, so I think Schwoerer will find continued success when he makes his triumphant return to the State Street neighborhood. Check out Falkenstein’s full piece for all the details.

UPDATED June 28, 2013: Good news! As reported by Samara Kalk Derby today, Paul’s Pe’meni (AKA Gorham Dumplings) is now open downtown. The bad news, though, is that owner Paul Schwoerer, “who also owns the Oasis Cafe and EVP coffee shop, 2690 Research Park Dr., in Fitchburg, has discontinued dumplings at that location because he doesn’t have the proper equipment or space there.”

‘Linda’ targeted as prospective customer

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.

Find the full piece here, then check out his examination of the Potato Board’s efforts to get “Lindas” to purchase more spuds.


Photo by UGA College of Ag via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0)

You are what your food eats

Pig in the wallow

Photo by Clyde Bentley via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

“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.

Leaning into change

Sculpture representing my sign in the Chinese zodiac, the dog. Photo by chooyutshing via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Change is hard. Trust me, I know. A friend once framed for me a description of my Chinese horoscope sign because it was pretty darn accurate: “The Dog … Honest, trusted, loyal … Plays with no other purpose than to enjoy the moment. But there is a tendency to worry if routine order is disrupted.” So, change is worrisome to me. I feel better planning ahead than winging it, and I like predictability.

Dog that I am, more than a year passed from the time that I bought The Omnivore’s Dilemma shortly after its publication in 2006 to the time that I actually read it. It sat on our coffee table collecting dust all those months, staring at me every day. Why did it take me so long to read it, even after my interest was strong enough to not only buy it in hardback but also leave it sitting out rather than shelving it? Because based on interviews that I had heard with author Michael Pollan (like this one, on Fresh Air), I knew in my gut that reading the book would make me want to change my eating habits, and I was reluctant to change. But one day I finally “sucked it up” and read it, and so started my journey as a conscientious omnivore.

During her final season, Oprah aired an episode that prominently featured veganism. She and the whole Harpo staff went vegan for a week, and the show included guests like Pollan and Kathy Freston (“The Veganist”) as well as a report by Lisa Ling from a slaughterhouse. One of the ideas discussed on this episode is that you can “lean into” change. In other words, instead of deciding to revamp some aspect of your life (like eating habits) all at once, you can make small changes to try things out. Folks who think to themselves, “Huh, I probably eat more meat than I need to” don’t need to go cold turkey (so to speak), going to bed a carnivore and waking up vegetarian. The same applies to any other dietary change you might make, whether it’s deciding to increase your daily fruit and veggie intake, eat fewer prepackaged and processed foods, reduce sodium in your diet, or eat more local produce. All-at-once isn’t necessarily the right way or the best way. Take it from a dog, small changes can be less intimidating, less disruptive, and therefore easier to stick with.

Have you been thinking about changing any of your eating habits? Which ones? What’s holding you back from making a change you’ve been considering?


The Conscientious Omnivore is away this week. This is an encore presentation of a post that originally appeared on November 8, 2011.

Chain appeal

Red Lobster Detour

Image by voteprime via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

“Oh Red Lobster. You are a delicious treat!” So said an acquaintance once in my Facebook feed. Since I was having a hard time understanding this statement in the absence of any winky irony, I decided to take some time to consider the appeal of chain dining by way of Dead Lobster (as I suspect some folks still snarkily call it).

In this piece from the Toronto Standard, John Semley examines what some find to be the reassuring comfort of the Red Lobster dining experience. (USA-folk, don’t be scared off by his Canadian references — the writing, save a few grammatical clunkers, is worth it, even if you aren’t entirely sure what Jack Astor’s is.) As he puts it,

Tacky, faux-faded plaques with names for businesses like the AMES BOATWORKS deck out the wood-paneled walls, alongside replica oil paintings of mighty Maine lighthouses, which seem so essential to the idea of eating at a Red Lobster that they’re practically conceptually loadbearing. The result is weird, but fitting considering the marginalized place of chain restaurants like Red Lobster: the restaurant seems to exhibit a sense of nostalgia for itself…. Imagine, driving out with your best gal to the Bar Habror [sic] Bar in Kennebunkport, circa 1968, to enjoy one of those not-yet-patented Red Lobster Shrimp Caesars with a side of homemade biscuits, cheese sifted straight from Cheddar Bay! The idea itself is phantasmal, referring to something that never even really existed. But this desperately nostalgic Red Lobster restaurant concept breeds a weird sense of urgency, like you’re eating in a restaurant that’s on the verge of extinction. (The cheesy dated signage certifies this feeling, collapsing time into space, like when people talk about dying and your life flashing before your eyes instantaneously.) And while a sense of necessity may help you scarf down a pound of reliable-but-ultimately-mediocre crab legs, it also undermines what’s supposed to be, above all else, a comforting experience. Because it’s dependably delicious [a]nd because the uniform sameness of the chain itself proves reassuring….

As an unofficial followup to that essay, The Onion AV Club (Toronto) ran a piece by Semley [no longer available online] that reports his annual participation in Red Lobster’s Endless Shrimp promotion. He mentions aspects of the restaurant that draw him in regardless of the current promo (“As usual, the server was friendly, attentive, and helpful, ensuring a steady rotation of shrimp, beer, and fresh-baked Cheddar Bay Biscuits. The restaurant is an absolute joy.”), but never-ending shrimp take center stage. Where his earlier essay paid homage to the comfort of chain predictability, this one revels in the gluttonous, painful pleasure of overindulgence.

Because shrimp are slight, fairly insubstantial things on their own, it’s easy to take down a whole bunch of them before the feeling of satiation begins to bear on you in any real way. (Unless you’re one of those people who sensibly knows when to stop eating, instead of just waiting, counting on your body’s disapproving reproach to tell you, “Put the fork down, fatso.”) Personally, I took down in excess of 70 shrimp, which was on the high end for our party, but not earth-shattering or anything. Just enough to get full in a way that makes you feel both proud and ashamed—the Janus-face of crapulence itself. It’s when you get home, and the overload of shrimp and garlic-butter begins churning through your disgusting gut that the Red Lobster avenges itself on your hubris.

Red Lobster’s appeal seems to be fading for some, though, as its parent company reported weak performance in 2012. As CNBC notes, “unsuccessful promotions led to a decline in sales at its Olive Garden, Red Lobster, and LongHorn Steakhouse chains…. The decline in traffic comes despite the company’s efforts to revamp the menus and marketing for its flagship chains…. At Red Lobster, it added options for people who don’t like seafood.” Things haven’t improved much in 2013. As USA Today reports, “Darden Restaurants’ third-quarter net income dropped 18%, as it dealt with soft sales at Red Lobster…. Darden Restaurants (DRI) has been struggling to make its brands relevant again as diners increasingly head to chains like Chipotle and Panera, where they feel they’re getting restaurant-quality food without paying as much.”

I haven’t joined the (apparently shrinking) camp of Red Lobster fans, but familiarity and plenty are two quintessential American values, so I think I understand the appeal a little better. Competition from Chipotle and Panera notwithstanding, Red Lobster in particular seems to have succeeded in part by marketing itself as a “fancy casual” place. Prices aren’t cheap — at $17.25 (here in Madison), the pick-two Create Your Own Feast is on the lowish end of their prices, and doesn’t include beverage, tax, or tip — but they aren’t approaching the nosebleed heights of high-end places. Folks can splurge on a night out without making a reservation or getting dressed up, without worrying about which fork to use, and without wondering what skate wing, beurre blanc, or almond foam are. No one will look down on you for ordering a Diet Coke with your baskets and plates full of (superficially) satisfying salt, fats, and carbs, and your car is conveniently waiting for you in the parking lot to whisk you home at the end of your meal.


The Conscientious Omnivore is away this week. This is an encore presentation of a post that originally appeared in slightly edited form on December 17, 2011.

Bringing a little joy to the kitchen

Prep for anise-scented lentil salad

Photo by travelingmcmahans [Dana McMahan] via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Thanks to a Facebook post from a friend (cheers, R!), I just came across Jaymi Heimbuch’s recent post at Tree Hugger of “8 joyful reasons to cook vegetarian at home.”

A number of the items on her list aren’t necessarily specific to vegetarian cooking, but #1 is: “Vegetarian meals are satisfying to the point that meat is superfluous.” As she writes,

I rediscovered how delicious, how satisfying all-veggie meals are and that we really don’t notice the lack of meat on the plate when we skip it. So many vegetarian dishes are flavorful and hearty, completely filling and interesting to the senses. Should we crave meat, sure, we can add a small portion of a locally raised chicken or something. But we haven’t once cared to add meat to the menu since I started cooking again. It feels great to return to a way of eating that I know is more sustainable, more healthy, and have it not feel like a deprivation.

And, for one more preview, here’s a bit of her explication of reason #3, “Making food pretty makes you feel more satisfied during and after a meal”:

Jan Chozen Bays, in her book Mindful Eating, writes of the seven hungers: eye hunger, nose hunger, mouth hunger, stomach hunger, cellular hunger, mind hunger and heart hunger. We eat for different reasons, and usually because we are feeling at least one of these hungers though we may not be hungry in the way we normally think we are, when our stomach is empty. Our bodies might be craving a certain nutrient, or our hearts might be craving a childhood comfort food. But in this culture of rushing and hurrying, what we often don’t realize is how many hungers we can satisfy by taking the time to make our food beautiful and enjoying that process and sight before we eat.

Find the full post here.

And, for a little inspiration, check out Heimbuch’s “12 Easy recipes for eating local and vegetarian in March.”

Financing the small farm

Microgreens. Yummy!

Microgreens. Photo by ratzelster via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Last week, public radio’s Marketplace Morning Report ran a short but informative story from Eve Troeh on the credit problem facing small farms. As host Jeremy Hobson describes in his introduction to the piece, “With the trend toward buying local food from local farms, you’d think it would be easy for local farmers to get some start-up cash. But, it isn’t, so the government is stepping in to help.” As Troeh reports,

traditional farm loans aren’t designed for [small-scale farmers], says Elizabeth Ü, the author of the forthcoming book Finance for Food.

“Financing either goes to very large scale industrial farmers, or primarily to farmers of commodity crops that aren’t even intended for human consumption,” says Ü.

The big banks that loan to big farms aren’t interested in a half-acre of eggplant. And start-up farmers … look too risky for most small business loans.

As Elise Hennigan writes in a lengthier article for the website of KCET public television,

Local food producers face high barriers to entry into the farming profession. Accessing enough land to make reliable profits … is their biggest hurdle. Other small farmers report that securing enough start-up capital is tough (especially for farmers who are starting from scratch rather than branching off from an already established business).

Due in large part to these dual challenges, small farm numbers are dwindling. The number of principal farm operators in the United States who have been in business for less than 10 years has decreased year after year for the past three decades. Similarly, the number of young farm operators has also decreased. In 1982, 16 percent of all principal operators were under the age of 35; by 2007 that number dropped to 5 percent.

To help support young and beginning farmers, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently launched a new microloan program designed to help small and family operations, including beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers, secure loans under $35,000. To appeal to this target demographic, the program offers an online application, a 1.5% interest rate, and flexible eligibility requirements.

As detailed in the USDA press release about the program,

Producers can apply for a maximum of $35,000 to pay for initial start-up expenses such as hoop houses to extend the growing season, essential tools, irrigation, delivery vehicles, and annual expenses such as seed, fertilizer, utilities, land rents, marketing, and distribution expenses….

Producers interested in applying for a microloan may contact their local Farm Service Agency office.

Refurbished Dairy Cattle Center opens at UW-Madison

This past Saturday I stopped by the grand opening of the newly remodeled Dairy Cattle Center on the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus. As I posted about a year ago, the facility was in dire need of updates. As a handout at the grand opening described, “The original dairy barn, which is located just west of the current facility, was built in 1898…. It is now on the National Register of Historic Places. The Dairy Cattle Center was originally built in 1956 to replace the 1898 facility.” As I quoted Wisconsin State Journal reporter Deborah Ziff’s article last year, “In the last 55 years, cows have been genetically bred to be bigger and provide more milk…. [Before the upgrades,] a cow that weighs 1,800 pounds [was] living in a stall built for one that weighed 1,200 pounds in the 1950s, meaning her rear end [hung] over the edge of the stall into a gutter.”

That won’t be the case anymore (or at least not quite so much) as you can see in the photos below. (Check out the links above to my earlier post or Ziff’s article for a pre-renovation comparison photo.) That said, I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that although new, more comfortable mats had been installed, life hadn’t really improved all that much for the cows, stuck as they are in their stalls with severely limited mobility and no access to pasture whatsoever. At the open house, there were hundreds of visitors who seemed very happy to see the facility and the cows, and I don’t doubt that the faculty, staff, and students learn a lot at the Center and very much care about the well-being of the animals. Personally, though, seeing the facility had the (surely unintended) consequence of renewing my commitment to support pasture-raised dairy, meat, and egg products.

One more facet of the visit gave me pause, and that was the extensive industry influence that was clearly reflected in promotional materials and bright, highly visible signage, some of it permanent. As the UW press release describes, “The project received strong industry support, notably from Madison-based BouMatic Inc., which contributed equipment and installation of the milking parlor, as well as donations of stall mats by Promat Inc. and parlor mats by Animat.” Nothing like promoting your product to current and future dairy industry professionals with the implied stamp of approval of the prestigious University of Wisconsin, huh? Money well-spent, I am sure. (Of course, the same sort of thing happens extensively, for example, with drug companies in the UW’s pharmacy, medical, and veterinary schools, just without the obvious signage.)

Newly remodeled (but unoccupied) stalls at the UW Dairy Cattle Center open house. Photo by The Conscientious Omnivore (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)


UW Dairy Cattle Center open house - cows

Cows in another part of the facility “enjoying” their new stalls. Photo by The Conscientious Omnivore (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

The hardy, hearty wheat called spelt

Photo by The Conscientious Omnivore (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

Photo by The Conscientious Omnivore (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

J and I recently baked a batch of CHOW’s Intense Brownies that we took to a dinner party. (They’re absolutely amazing, by the way, and super easy to make.) In describing the ingredients, J noted that instead of regular wheat flour we used spelt flour. He then turned to me and asked, “Why exactly do we eat spelt?” Then another dinner guest asked, “What is spelt?” I could only laugh in response to both queries because I couldn’t quite remember myself! Since then, I racked my memory and did some digging online, and here are the answers.

Even though I don’t really put much stock in it, the Blood Type Diet (which I learned about from a friend who’s very into it) has spelt on the lists of grains that are acceptable for both J’s and my different blood types. That’s how we first got into spelt. Also, when and where it makes sense, I like buying products that help encourage a little ecological diversity in the big world of commodity grains.

As TheKitchn describes, “Spelt is a species of wheat that was a very important crop in ancient and medieval times, but now it is only commonly grown in Europe. It’s been around in the United States since the 1890s, but it was replaced in the 20th century by bread wheat.” As the folks at LocalHarvest detail, “Spelt has 15-21% more protein than wheat, and also contains higher amounts of complex carbohydrates, iron, potassium, and B vitamins…. Spelt is also an organic friendly product, since its thick, protective husk serves as a natural barrier for pests, making it easier to grow using organic methods.”

So if spelt’s so great, why isn’t it more widespread? Industrialization and commercialization led to it being supplanted by modern hybrid varieties. As Phyllis Glazer explains at news website The Times of Israel, “why did spelt fall out of favor throughout the centuries? Simply because spelt’s extra-hard husk was more difficult to process, and it yielded less per field than wheat, making it more expensive for producers and consumers. Yet in recent years, an increasing number of consumers and high-end bakeries are willing to pay the cost.” Count me among them. Spelt flour tastes great in everything from my favorite crackers, the Seedlander from Doctor Kracker, to spelt pasta. (As with most grain products, I favor the pastas made with whole-grain rather than more processed “white” spelt flour.)

Worth mentioning is that, although you see reports all over the web that spelt is easier to digest than more common wheat varieties, it’s still wheat—contrary to confusion on the part of some—and thus is not safe for people with celiac disease.

Lastly, whenever we start talking about how “good” some foods are, especially grains, it’s worth revisiting Aaron Bobrow-Strain’s great book, White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf. We should always be both suspicious of health claims made by food purveyors and wary of moral pronouncements about what constitutes good food.