Thursday, August 27, 2009

Choice is an Illusion

When discussing the issues that are prevalent in this blog - food policy, environmental degradation, conservation, energy policy - I often feel frustration with the general publics lack of interest or attention. Ever since former Vice President Dick Cheney said that "conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy," I have wondered how it is possible to relegate these values to the same category that contains, "cleanliness" or "frugality" (Benjamin Franklin actually listed 13 such virtues in his autobiography.) To consider such values ones of personal choice is abominable.

I don't consider these values to be issues of personal choice based on preferences. They are issues based on right and wrong. Careless, reckless, wasteful business or personal choices result in the destruction of our environment, depletion of natural resources, devastation of biodiversity, and as has been discussed more recently, harmful to basic human rights. The organization, Business for Social Responsibility ("BSR") published a short paper recently on this topic, and it points out that "climate change means more competition for fewer resources, and the future will favor those who are already well off, while affecting the disadvantaged the most." Oxfam's report "Climate Wrongs and Human Rights" goes into far more detail, and included the following powerful quotes:

‘The frequency of the flooding is worse compared to ten years ago. Last October we had water up to our knees for four days. We don’t know why the weather is changing. We are very worried about losing our home, about losing our crops, about going hungry.’
– Ho Si Thuan, a rice farmer in Quang Tri province, Viet Nam

‘In the past there was enough rain…but now things are different. The rains have disappeared. The drinking water that we used to fetch from the riverbeds can no longer be found. There is a lot of thirst; even the few livestock we own have so little water. What can I do to address this thirst? I get so anxious. There aren’t enough words to express the pain.’
– Martina Longom, a farmer and mother in Kotido district, Uganda

These are not issues upon which to tread lightly. When I hear that people don't have the time to recycle plastic bags, or don't feel that turning the air conditioning down makes a difference, or simply choose to remain apathetic, I have little to no tolerance.

A few weeks ago, the New York Times published a story "Climate Change Seen as Threat to U.S. Security." John Kerry said he's been talking about this for years, but it "has not been a focus because a lot of people had not connected the dots." The truth is, it hasn't been politically or economically popular to "connect the dots" until now.

Recently, my company sent out a firmwide email about the new color-coded bins for recycling, composting, plastic bags, landfill, etc. Shortly thereafter, I heard a chorus of voices declaring it as a "waste of time" and "stupid" and even "they make garbage too complicated here. It's all the same, who cares." People will deny or look for fault in anything that challenges their lifestyle. If sorting trash is the right thing to do, then that implies we've been doing it wrong. But what's wrong with poverty, hunger, disease, water scarcity, and war? Those are just "personal virtues" anyway.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Terrifying (Unsurprising) Trend

Since I started this blog, a recurring theme has been the link between the way we eat in this country, and the skyrocketing rates of obesity. The current healthcare debate has brought about a wave of articles about the cost of obesity, including an excellent piece in this week's Time by Bryan Walsh. By some estimates, obesity is costing us $147B a year.

It is unlikely from the content of this page, but I am a fixed-income financial nerd by profession. Last year, as the housing market began to unwind, and the financial crisis set it, an often mentioned topic was that of record US Household Debt. A key component of the creation of the housing bubble that burst so dramatically, was an equally large bubble in credit. The reckless practices by banks and lending institutions, coupled with high consumer confidence and rising housing prices, led to the US personal savings rate dipping into negative territory.

I couldn't help but draw the connection between careless spending, and a broader carelessness in America. In a world dominated by Lipitor, fad diets, ever-changing nutritional standards, aggressive food marketing, Americans have expanded almost as fast as the housing market. Just like Countrywide giving $800,000 loans to unemployed janitors, using the rational of ever-rising home prices, the big food companies do their best to convince us that Froot Loops and Frosted Flakes are "smart choices."

Based on childhood obesity data from the CDC and the Federal Reserves US Household Debt data, I decided to put the two together. The relationship is staggering. The actual correlation of the two data sets is .998, almost perfect.

We all know how the housing market story ended. Where this leads, with respect to our national health and the safety of our food supply, is yet to be determined. What has been determined, sadly, is a pattern of behavior that plagues us in America: why deal with the problem today, if I can put it off until tomorrow?

Tomorrow is getting closer.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Golden Rule, err, Arches

Today this story in the Daily News was published, outlining an often-ignored danger of living in the inner city: fast food. This is not exactly news, of course, but at least it's being discussed more often, and publicly. Inner city residents have little to no access to fresh produce, but almost limitless, cheap, high-calorie, nutritionless industrial fast food options. Why? Easy: Cost.

Asking "why" again, though, is far more disturbing. Our government, lobbied heavily by various players in the agribusiness-industrial complex, has constructed a farm bill, and has adopted agricultural policies that subsidize the raw materials of this grossly profitable industry. Earlier this year, David Leonhardt of the New York Times put together this chart based on data from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics:

The cost of "food" has gone up, but the cost of junk food has fallen dramatically. Fresh fruits, vegetables, fish and seafood prices have risen steadily, but sodas, notably, have fallen consistently. This is not hard to explain: soda is made of high fructose corn syrup, artificial flavors, and water (if it's diet, then it's just novel calorie-less rearrangements of corn anyway). Corn is subsidized heavily by the government. Soda producers can thus buy the raw inputs under cost, and the final price of their product falls.

Fast food is just another result of the heavy subsidization of commodity crops that are used as cheap raw inputs. This is making us fatter (yet malnourished), devastating the environment, and leading to a public health crisis. Yet in all this talk of health care reform, not a whisper about this topic. It's political suicide for two reasons:

1. Massive campaign contributions by agri-giants, and
2. Demonizing over 50% of the population (and I'm using an extremely conservative estimate) who are overweight, doesn't win any votes.

But according to the CDC, obesity related healthcare costs may have reached $78.5 BILLION, in 1998. That was 10 years ago. And since then, obesity rates have steadily risen. You do the math.

Mr. Leonheardt had another column in last Sunday's NYTimes magazine as well, and continued with this theme. "The debate over health care reform has so far revolved around how insurers, drug companies, doctors, nurses and government technocrats might be persuaded to change their behavior. And for the sake of the economy and the federal budget, they do need to change their behavior. But there has been far less discussion about how the rest of us might also change our behavior. It’s as if we have little responsibility for our own health. We instead outsource it to something called the health care system"


Monday, August 17, 2009

Peach Pickles!

- Beth Brandon

I could write about a million things right now, since I just returned from
my good friend Katie's farm in Cranston, RI where I've been working and playing and swimming and eating for the past week and a half.

I think I'll start with this: pickled peaches (since my other post was about peaches, and I now have a new favorite to add to my repertoire of things to do with stone fruits).

I spent a day home from the farm to make pickles, sauerkraut, and homemade mayonnaise, which will certainly be in an upcoming post... My day of pickling was fairly freestyle, perhaps because I have a good deal of experience with pickles and perhaps because I was on vacation. In any case, I recommend you start out with this basic proportion:

2 c. honey
1 pint vinegar - white or red wine or mixture of both
about 5 lbs. of peaches, pitted and sliced

I kept the skins on the peaches, but you can remove them if you like. There's a possibility that your skinned peaches will turn brownish after a while, but adding some lemon juice to each jar would probably help.

Put the honey and vinegar in a large heavy pot. Add to that your typical pickling spices; here are some suggestions:

coriander seeds
fenugreek seeds
mustard seeds
black peppercorns
whole chili peppers
cinnamon stick
whole cloves

Bring this mixture to a boil and simmer for about 10 minutes.

Pack raw peach slices into hot, sterilized jars. Ladle hot vinegar-honey mixture over peaches, leaving 1/2" head-space at the top of the jar. Assemble 2-piece caps.

You can either let the jars cool and put them in the fridge to eat within the next few months, or process the jars in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes. (Processed, the pickles will keep unrefrigerated for up to 1 year.)

I'm leaving out a lot of details on the ins and outs of canning, but if you're new to it, look here for a helpful guide.

Using the same recipe but with the addition of garlic cloves, I made some of the best pickled carrots I or any of my friends had ever tasted! Now is the time. Make some pickles and pull them out in 8 months when crispy and fresh have all but left your taste vocabulary.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Blistered in the Sun

Been really busy lately and haven't had much time to post, but tonight came home and decided it was time to get busy in the kitchen. Had some beautiful lamb in the freezer, and our fridge was loaded with farmers market produce. This included some baby eggplants that were calling to me. Lamb+eggplant is a natural combination. So here's the menu:

• Local red lettuce and tomato salad with sprouts and sweet peppers; dijon-balsamic vinaigrette
• Roasted "Charmoula" marinated lamb loin, with mint-garlic pesto, on eggplant-garlic-pepper puree.
• Corn on the cob
• Blistered shishito peppers with pink sea salt

Not going to post full recipes here, but here are some details.

"Charmoula" is a somewhat generic term for a north-African olive oil based spice paste, that generally includes ground chilies, cumin, salt, garlic, lemon, onion, coriander, saffron, etc. For this particular spice paste, I used:

olive oil
pimenton (smoked Spanish paprika)
sweet paprika
ground cumin
minced garlic
ground black pepper
kosher salt
dash of white wine vinegar (didn't have a lemon, but needed acid)

The eggplant puree was actually one of the best concoctions I've come up with in a while. Started by blackening the eggplants on all sides in a cast-iron skillet. After about 20 minutes, I let them cool, then peeled them and scooped out the softened flesh. Next, pureed in a food-processor with a little bit of salt and pepper. Meanwhile, sauteed finely diced garlic, hot peppers, sweet peppers, and zucchini until all were softened (but still slightly firm), and folded it all together. This creamy, spicy-sweet puree was a perfect compliment to the lamb (but tasty as hell on it's own)

The pesto was just fresh mint, olive oil, and garlic with a bit of fresh black pepper. Brightened the whole thing up and transformed a pretty comforting meal into a much more summery affair.

Shishito peppers are the closest thing to pimientos you can get around here. These small, tender, slightly spicy peppers are best prepared simply: tossed with a bit of olive oil, and blistered in a hot cast-iron skillet (or grilled), and tossed with a bit of sea salt. I have to get them fast.... Dunnie will make these disappear in a flash.

Shishito Peppers

Lamb loin chop w/ mint-garlic pesto, eggplant-pepper puree, corn on the cob

Blistered shishito peppers

(You can see I got jipped on these suckers!)
(Dunnie ate twice as many as me)

A Note on Nutrition

Large post coming on dinner tonight, but in the meantime, came across this article from the American Cancer Society, on tomatoes as a cancer-fighting superfood. Why is this relevent? Well, along the lines of my previous post about organic food and nutrition, this is a perfect example of the benefits of foods being greater than the sum of their parts. The tomato, and it's components, are healthier than the components taken individually as supplements. Wow, nature is more efficient than humans after all!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Farm(ers Market) to Table

Farm Food
Originally uploaded by Utter Brandomonium

Both last night and tonight, dinner preparation had a dual purpose: make something to eat, and to use up some (slightly) aging produce. Tonight's was not your run-of-the-mill dinner by any means. A farm egg scramble with the unbelievable eggs from Knoll Crest Farms, some Salumi, spring onions and rosemary from my window. And a salad of early tomatoes, raw sweet corn, red quinoa (brought back from Peru!), fresh mint, and chili flakes. YUM!


recent interview with Joel Salatin (of The Omnivores Dilemma and Food, Inc. fame) about farming, food, tolerance, sustainability and how to relax was posted on If you can put aside the stigma associated with the website's name, this is an amazing piece.

Joel is truly an inspiring figure. He writes and speaks with an eloquence, conviction, and clarity of thought rare amongst scholars, let alone farmers. Some of his ideals are pushing the utopian, but he is unapologetic and believes deeply in his purpose.

Regarding what is wrong with the food industry, his assessment boils down to four things: soil, hubris, safety and respect. The following excerpts highlight each:

"The soil is the only thread upon which civilization can exist, and it's such a narrow strip around the globe if a person could ever realize that our existence depends on literally inches of active aerobic microbial life on terra firma, we might begin to appreciate the ecological umbilical to which we are all still attached. The food industry, I'm convinced, actually believes we don't need soil to live. That we are more clever than that."

"The food industry views everything through the skewed paradigm of faith in human cleverness rather than dependence on nature's design"

"The food industry actually believes that feeding your children Twinkies, Cocoa Puffs and Mountain Dew is safe, but drinking raw milk and eating compost-grown tomatoes is dangerous"

"...a culture that views its life from such an arrogant, manipulative, disrespectful hubris, will view its own citizenry the same way--and other cultures"

Please, read the rest here

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Greater Than the Sum of it's Parts

Jim Giles of the New Scientist published this article in response to the story I already reacted to, stating that organic food is no better than conventional. Thank you Jim!