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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.