Pink Slime = Darth Vader

March 26, 2012

That nasty stuff they put in your hamburger has been there for years, but this week evil has a name! Now that we’re all calling it Pink Slime instead of Lean Fine Textured Beef we see the truth of things. Pink Slime sounds like a putrid comic book character. Lean Fine Textured Beef sounds like really fancy diet food.

We consumers have short attention spans. A pithy nickname and a quick pitch are required to catch our attention. ‘Food Inc. showed the horrors of LFTB back in 2008, but it wasn’t until it this month’s catchy ‘Pink Slime’ moniker that consumers got angry. The practice of scraping scrap from the edges of cow carcasses, spraying it with ammonia and pretending its food is getting its just desserts. Stores are rushing to get the stuff off their shelves. Schools are doing the same.

Hurrah!   Here’s proof that consumers really, really, really can change the way of things simply by keeping their purse strings drawn. Let’s let that sink in. WE can change the way food is made in this country. Quickly. Permanently. That is flippin’ awesome.

Still, how long can this last? How many shoppers will wrinkle their noses at the hamburger and head over to the freezer section to buy some Lean Fine Textured Chicken nuggets never considering they have traded one food supply villain for another? Too many. Pink Slime is the bad guy this week, but there are plenty of other evil food minions out there to fill the void once we’ve defeated him.

Sigh.

It’s downright exhausting to consider all the things that could be wrong with the stuff in your grocery cart. So…we don’t. We wander aimlessly, consuming what seems like it might be OK (‘Reduced Sodium!’ ‘Light!’ ‘Natural!’) and pray to the food gods that we are not getting slimed. We would rather fight Darth Vader than do boring chores for Uncle Owen. (“But I was going into Tosche Station to pick up some power converters!”)

It’s imperative to battle villains, making loud noises about disgusting food production habits like the sliming of our beef.  We must, however, follow up those big press moments with quiet, simple, terribly unsexy acts of rebellion. Reject the slime. Absolutely. That’s a start. But if there’s going to be a sequel (let’s call it The Consumer Strikes Back) we need to be daily vigilant against this sort of food abuse. That means we must, as undercover agents for good in the fight against the Food Republic….

read the ingredient list.

That’s it. Right there. It’s not nearly as sexy as slaying slime, but if enough consumers check the labels and reject them based on unpronounceable ingredients and/or their lack of honest, specific promises (like ‘Organic!’ ‘Does Not Contain HGBT!’ ‘No Antibiotics!’) we could destroy the Empire.

Take that Pink Slime (although we understand you were led astray by the Dark Side and sincerely hope you will repent your evil ways before you die)!


How Not to Eat Like a Bear

June 8, 2011

I recently wrote an article about families with mixed eating habits – vegetarians living with vegans living with dedicated carnivores. I found myself using the term flexitarian in the story. I dislike this word.  If a vegetarian eats primarily vegetable matter and a pescitarian eats fish, does a flexitarian eat flexis?

I like Michael Pollan’s ‘omnivore’ better. But then we are omnivores, aren’t we?

Sure, but we’re not very good omnivores.

Consider a bear. We’ll call him Bob. Bob is an omnivore. He wakes up from his long winter’s nap, comes across a bush of blackberries and goes bananas.

“Wow! Blackberries. Nom, nom, nom,” growls Bob as he devours every ripe fruit on the bush. Chances are, somewhere around the third pound, Bob will get a hankering for some protein and find a stump to turn over.

“Wow! Grubs,” Bob will cheer. “Nom, nom, nom.” He will eat the grubs until they are gone. Bob will be a happy bear.

Now, if later in his travels Bob comes across a stream of fish, Bob will say, “Double Wow! Fish!” Bob will go to town.

Imagine now a well-meaning Fish and Game warden. Let’s call him Ward. Ward loves and wants to help Bob, so he stocks the stream with fish. Constantly.

Thanks to Ward, Bob can eat fish all day, every day, and so he does. Bob gets morbidly obese and fails to attract any girl bears. Bob is in danger of getting high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease. He’s depressed. Bob drowns his sorrows in (you guessed it) more fish.

It’s a fishous cycle. (Couldn’t help myself.)

Now, Bob and Ward aren’t intentionally ruining the course of nature. They’re both just doing what they do best. Ward, being human, is able to manipulate his environment and make things more comfortable. Bob, the bear, is eating all he can during times of plenty with anticipation of lean times come winter. The only way Ward can save Bob from obesity and lonely Saturdays is to stop stocking the river.  It’s a hard prospect for a guy so good at his job.

We Americans, like Ward, have a stock-the-river mentality. We’re determined and able to avoid hunger. We also carry with us Bob’s instinct to fatten up, just in case.  We’re oversupplied omnivores, and like Bob we’re getting really, really fat.

It hasn’t been that long we’ve been killing ourselves with culinary kindness. Before the 1960’s we were less able to preserve foods, we spent more time cooking them, and we ate with a greater sense of reverence for the rite of communal dining. Since the sixties, we’ve gotten a little carried away by the bounty of an industrialized food system. It’s understandable. Freedom from hunger is a fine achievement and one that should be celebrated with, say, a Ding Dong. Or six.

We’re beginning to realize, however, that an unlimited food supply with a chemically enhanced shelf life isn’t such a boon. Our children are fatter than ever in history and will inherit a legacy of poor health due to overconsumption of non-nutritious foods. We’re the fattest we’ve ever been, and although we live longer we also face a plethora of diseases brought on by excess.

The only way we’ll overcome our omnivore’s dilemma is to become conscious omnivores, or maybe conscientious omnivores.  We’re not going to stop stocking our river of food. But maybe we can step back and consider what and how much we choose to add to our food supply and when, what and how much we ourselves eat.

Like Ward we can (and should) step back, gander at poor, bloated Bob and say, “Whoa! This wasn’t such a good idea. Maybe we better lay off the fish sticks.”


That's Offal

March 23, 2011

There’s a cow tongue boiling on my stove today, catching a lot of grief from a family determined not to let a bit of it pass their lips. I say if you’re going to kill a cow shouldn’t you use every bit of it you can?

Halfway through the boiling stage

This philosophy is de rigueur in the foodie world. It’s called snout-to-tail eating, and it’s part of the sustainable eating movement. That’s why you can get pork belly and chicken gizzards at some very chic New York restaurants. It’s why you can find Alton Brown on the Food Network online explaining the process of rendering lard. (And yes, I’ll be doing that later.)

It’s also a philosophy that’s been around since the first hairy guy clubbed an animal, skinned it, and dragged it across a fire pit. In fact, as near as I can tell, it’s primarily the U.S. that has turned its snout up at snouts. Just about every other country in the world uses the, er, unique cuts of meat called offal. The Italians spread pig fat on their bread and moan with delight. Hispanic and Asian cultures make all sorts of things with heads and feet and entrails. The French, those arbiters of all things delicious, force feed ducks corn to produce a fatty liver that costs a fortune. (I don’t particularly endorse this practice, but it does serve my point.)

Only here do the kids see a cow’s tongue and snarl “Gross! I’m eating fruit for dinner.”

I can’t blame them entirely. The tongue on my stove has me slightly nauseous too. I’m not averse to looking at it. My science background had me inspecting the tongue with anatomical glee. It’s tongue eating that turns my stomach a bit. This is something I need to get over if I’m going to be a conscientious carnivore. While I may not go looking for offal dishes, it seems to me I shouldn’t be running away from them either.

Not bad.

I’m pretty sure I’ve had tongue before. During my marine-biology-minor college days I spent a lot of time in Baja Mexico. Back then, I would belly up to a wooden bar and try just about anything. I also ate a lot of tamales out of cast iron pots hoisted by Mexican kids at gas stations or along the street. I remember some interesting textures passing my lips in those days. Odd textures are a hallmark of offal.

It’s been a long time since those carefree Baja days. I’ve grown soft as far as my culinary adventures. Still, here I am, cooking parts as research for a story I proposed to a local paper. I’m working hard to overcome what I know is an irrational aversion. Seriously I’ll eat a pork butt roast or chicken wing without a second thought. What’s the difference?

Post Script – Tongue tastes a lot like pot roast, which isn’t my favorite meat. It’s not something I’d go out of my way to prepare or order, but it wasn’t terrible. The visual of the tiny taste buds still on the slices is also a bit hard to overcome, even though they taste no different than the rest of the meat. It’s also a rich, fatty meat. I’ve heard from several folks who love it, so I’m satisfied knowing it has a home in some kitchens. Still, I don’t think I’ll be serving it again.

Proof that I tried it


Mark Bittman Stole My Blog

February 4, 2011

This week, the chef who wrote How to Cook Everything suddenly started sounding off about preservatives and the governmental food bureaucracy and eating less meat. In The New York Times.

Really?  I take a few months off and Mark Bittman is moving in on my rant territory, sounding off about all my best topics, and no doubt stealing all of my 14 subscribers. OK. Fine. Welcome to the party, chef. But here’s a little advice: you’ve bit off more than you could chew by taking on the FDA, USDA, CAFO beef, big farms and processors in your first couple hundred words.

Not that everything Bittman said in his debut  column, ‘Food Manifesto,’ wasn’t true. Our government does subsidize garbage food to the point of turning our Middle American farmers into serfs and our school children into trash receptacles for gray corn and meat paste nuggets. Centralized farming is killing our small farmers and creating a system that rapes the Earth. Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations are nasty. We eat too much junk food. We don’t cook enough. True. True. True. True. True. Our food system is a mess. There are villains aplenty. Bittman says we should scrap the whole mess and start over.

It’s fun to raise hell, but tearing down the system won’t work. With all our inefficiencies and redundancies and flat out lunacy, the U.S. has one of the most efficient feeding systems in the world. Most of us are fat and happy, which is better than starving. Still, we have mucked  things up. We may be the only place on the planet where a ‘fruit snack’ has never even had a whiff of any actual fruit. To be sure, we have our villains – people who knowingly swap human and environmental health for a buck.  And there are hungry people here, which is ridiculous given our surplus of food.

I don’t think, however, that most of the folks who make up our great food industrial complex sit around at home twirling their long black moustaches as they wait for their cape to fluff in the dryer before they head out to kill children with corn syrup. I don’t think most of our farmers are fat-cat bastards looking to destroy their land or their customers’ health. Most of the people who work in our food industry are just trying to make a living. They aren’t trying to kill us. They’ve just sorta lost their way, as we all have.

The politics of food are complicated. Like any U.S. issue, solving this is going to take unraveling rather than undoing. I don’t want to kill farm subsidies in one fell swoop because I’m pretty sure there’s a good man in Iowa somewhere just trying to feed his family and grow a crop who would be the first casualty. That guy isn’t stupid, greedy or uncaring. He’s just a guy. If we find a bad guy, sure, lets feed him meat nuggets and corn syrup until he bleeds. But let’s first be sure his motives were evil rather than lost or misguided.

The evil that exists in our feeding system exists because, over time, we have built it into our national menu. Tearing down big government and big food companies might make us feel better, but the vast majority of us still won’t know how to break down a chicken or what to do with a bunch of kale. Revolution always starts with the common man. Ask those folks in Cairo. They’ll confirm.

Wanna change the system? Change your own eating habits. When you shop, give the ingredient list as much weight as the price tag. That means telling your kids that fruit snacks are garbage food and buying a pear instead.  It means eating less meat, and paying more for humanely raised meat when you do. It means taking the extra time to think. It means saying to yourself and the world, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to eat it anymore,” and then keeping your word. This is much more difficult than railing at the ‘bigs,’ but it’s much more likely, over time, to cause an actual revolution in our food habits.

I recently interviewed a rancher named Joe Morris about his grassfed beef. Morris filters his eating decisions (in fact all his decisions) through a four-stage moral sieve. He asks himself: 1) Is it healthy for me? 2) Is it healthy for my family? 3) Is it healthy for my community? and 4) Is it healthy for the environment?

Now that’s a food manifesto that could change the world.


Soy Good Cocoa

January 27, 2011

I’m not a fan of soy milk, with it’s vegetal aftertaste. However, I picked up a carton of Silk chocolate mint soy milk on sale the other day. Why? Well, because it was on sale. I’m glad I did, too. I’m sipping a warmed mug with a bit of espresso powder for kick as I type.

No. This isn’t cocoa. It’s not quite as rich. I kinda like that. There’s also something about the mint that knocks out the cloy factor I dislike in regular chocolate soy milk. For me to drink the stuff straight is a culinary achievement, honest. I’m thinking a little orange or mint extract in the plain chocolate soy might be in order here. Very well shaken, not stirred, as is the key in surviving any soy milk adventure.

It would take more than a mildly pleasant soy sensation to get me off my half and half. I have nothing but love for a good dairy product. Still, at 90 calories and with that female friendly green goober pea in there, a flavor boosted chocolate soy seems a good once-in-a-while treat. Say on those days when I ate six ounces of brie for lunch, just as an example.


Poison Eggs and Frankenfish

September 19, 2010

At first blush, salmon and eggs don’t seem to have much in common other than protein content.  But wait. There’s more. And it’s not good.

You would have to be living under a news-averse rock to miss the summer recall of a half billion eggs potentially infected with salmonella. It’s the sort of ‘FOOD POISON’ story that is a mainstay in journalism: “Oh My God! This Could Kill You!” is the general theme of the Food Poison story headline. After the initial panic, a few deaths, and the government recall the headlines fades away.

So, it’s entirely possible you missed the page 4 follow-up on the recall that ratted out an Iowa egg producer with a bad food rap sheet as long as an industrial chicken shed. This is a guy who has been run out of at least one town, who inspired a first-ever local food law because of poor worker safety, and who was recently identified by the USDA as a really sloppy farmer. Sloppy as in chickens walking around in 8-foot high piles of their own shit.

Now, a rightfully indignant consumer would ask, “how was this person selling eggs to my family?” The simple answer is: The government let him. The better answer is: You let the government let him.

The USDA noted the horrid conditions of the salmonella farm while grading eggs a while back, according to Bay Area doctor and columnist Kate Scannell. However, it isn’t the USDA’s job to oversee the production of eggs. They just stamp them Grade A, or whatever. And apparently the USDA didn’t think to let the FDA (those guys who are supposed to keep our food safe) know about the eight-foot high piles of crap.

Not to go all Birch Society on you, but I don’t think this is an oversight.  (Pun intended.) The federal food safety and farm regulation guys have been enmeshed with farmers since the New Deal. Our federal government has created a system so interdependent that we don’t really have food cops. We have food politicians. Meanwhile good farmers couldn’t be separated from bad farmers (and this country has plenty of both) if you tried. Our farm laws are geared toward a cheating system. Everybody plays. Shhhh.

So, rotten eggs get sold. The farmer stays in business. The government keeps on keeping on. We continue to get cheap eggs. Huzzah!

On to the salmon.

At the same time people were getting really, really sick from tainted omelets, a bioengineering company was working to give us another source of really, really cheap protein – genetically modified salmon!

Are you thinking that’s a bad idea? Don’t worry. Your government is hard at work to assure you never known when these salmon enter the food market, or which salmon they are. You see, the FDA (Those are the cops, remember?)  early this month said there’s no real difference between a wild river salmon and the fish from AquaBouty Technologies Inc. The FDA knows this because the company that is selling the fish gave them the research data to prove it. What a nice company!

The engineered fish uses genetic material from an eel-like fish that protects it against freezing. That antifreeze gene is planted into the growth gene of a Chinook. Then, that mess of DNA is then implanted into a North Atlantic salmon. The resulting Frankenfish grows year round rather than during the regular salmon growth season. We must assume that this is because his genes never get cold, so the millions of years of attunement with nature are turned off.

So, you know, lots more fish. Cheap fish! And you’ll never have to be bothered by the little detail of it having been genetically engineered because the FDA says it’s OK. Also, the FDA says it won’t label these genetically modified fish, because that’s not its job.  As near as I can tell, that’s nobody’s job.

So…Huzzah! Cheap fish!

In the next few months, the Senate will take a look at a new food safety bill the House passed in July. “Huzzah!” you say. My eggs and fish will be safe after all.  Not really. When it comes to food and farming, government and industry are so locked in the dance of self-delusional, co-dependence that you, the consumer, don’t really enter into the equation. The Senators up for reelection may posture about protecting their constituents, but our farm regulations are not really designed to do that. They are written protect the farm industry and the government that depends on rather than regulates it.

Your eggs may still be filled with salmonella and your salmon with eel-like genes. But don’t worry. The government will make sure you are blissfully ignorant of the true costs or dangers of either. It’s sort of like the corn and soy products you are eating, which are almost assuredly genetically modified. Didn’t know that? See how well the system is working?


Cool as a Pickle

August 9, 2010

Canning is cool again, which means my neighbors have to take me off their dork list.

This week I came across three articles touting the marvels of homemade – in Better Homes and Gardens, Costco Connection and in the newspaper.  Then I picked up a copy of The Art of Preserving, a book with photos so lush they can only be described as food porn. * So you see, canning is the newest fad in foodie land.

I’m really happy about this because I’ve been canning in the closet for nearly 20 years. It started with my friend and then roommate Celia. Determined to give me skills beyond mac n’ cheese, Celia taught me to the ways of the canner with a batch of  wild plum jam that was as close to Nirvana as you can get in a Ball jar.

I’ve been rocking my jar lifter every since – solo.

For years, the public’s disdain of canners has been something akin to its reaction those people who move to the woods to avoid the impending invasion of alien worm people.  I’d be at a party and say something like: “Hey! I’m making strawberry conserves on Thursday. Who wants to join me?”

Cue the chirping crickets. See the neighbors creep slowly to the opposite side of the room.

So, off I’d go to burn my arms with molten, fruit flavored lava in pursuit of the perfect preserves. Alone again, naturally. An outcast with nothing but jelly jars for company.

Despite my angst I’ve had some spectacular canning successes. Last year’s pepper jam was good enough that my husband’s boss called with a mouthful to compliment me. I’ve also had some vivid failures. Two years ago my attempt with wild blackberries turned into a solid mess. And I do mean solid.

Hot Pepper Jelly

But I digress, which you must put up with seeing as I am now a member of the cool canning club. I’m pretty sure Katy Perry is going to call any day now to borrow a few seals. (That’s canning talk. Look it up.)

If you’re new to canning (and the majority of people under the age of 65 are) you can still join the club. C’mon over to my place and we’ll put something up. You would be the first person ever to accept the invitation, but I have renewed hope that you at least won’t make fun of me.

If you can’t swing by, I have a few tips to share. Don’t laugh. You too, may soon be cool as a pickled cucumber, like Katy and me.

Stuff You Must Buy

  • An old school canning book. The Ball Blue Book is the gold standard, but there are plenty of others now. Small Batch Preserving is another good place to start. And don’t forget to actually read it. There’s a learning curve early on.
  • A canning pot.  Yes, it’s big. However, it’s the perfect place to store canning supplies out in the garage or boil a whole lot of corn on the cob.
  • A jar lifter. Think of it as the perfect pair of tongs. Really, I canned for a few years before picking one up. One of my best purchases ever.
  • A wide mouth funnel. The number one reason I no longer burn myself with molten jam and jelly.

Stuff You Should Have On Hand

  • Really great hot pads or heat resistant gloves. (You can use garden gloves.) The baseline requirement for safely canned foods is heat. And you have to pick things up. Even with a jar lifter, you’re going to need protection.
  • Lots of clean dishcloths and old towels, but none that you don’t want stained. A clean jar seals properly and won’t give you botulism. Clean equipment and surfaces are a must.
  • A dishwasher, or hot dishwater. The jars have to be hot when you fill them. If you wash them right before you use them and leave them in the washer they will be at a good temperature.

Stuff You Should Know

  • In cooking terms, canning is as difficult as, say, pulling together several dinner dishes simultaneously. On a scale of 1 – 10, 1 being easy, I’d give canning a 6 or a 7.
  • Timing is everything, and it’s going to take you a few tries to get your own system down. But you will feel like a rock star once you do.
  • Too thin preserves are called syrup. Too thick preserves are filler for Christmas cookies.  Tell everyone you meant to do that.

*Local sustainable farmer and former chef Rebecca Courchesne of Frog Hollow Farm, Brentwood is a co-writer of this Williams Sonoma cookbook. Look for it on Amazon or at your local bookstore or Costco.


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