The Real Issue 2

There is nothing to be done about it now; civilization has ceased to be that
delicate flower which was preserved and painstakingly cultivated in one or two
sheltered areas of soil rich in wild species which may have seemed menacing
because of the vigor of their growth, but which nevertheless made it possible to
vary and revitalize the cultivated stock. Mankind has opted for monoculture; it
is in the process of creating a mass civilization, as beetroot is grown in the
mass. Henceforth, man's daily bill of fare will consist only of this one item.

-Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques

No, this man did not make jeans, but rather was a fairly famous French anthropologist who was here commenting on the destruction of the Amazon rain forest and the effects of such destruction on the people and ecology of this region. What strikes me as funny (and clearly not in a "ha-ha" sort of way) is just how poignant and applicable this quotation still is today.

Next month in the state of Ohio, voters will be asked to cast a yes or no vote on Issue 2, which would create the Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board. The creation of this board would require and amendment to the Ohio constitution. On surface, the creation of this Board seems like a good thing, something to support for those of us who promote and support farmers and ranchers who raise their livestock humanely. The fact of the matter is, the Board would grant even more power to factory farms and CAFO's, backed by the support of law, with virtually no oversight.

The idea of driving through the state of Ohio and seeing giant cow, pig, and chicken feedlots surrounded by the already overwhelming miles of commodity corn frankly makes me sick to my stomach. Voting yes on this issue simply gives more power to groups that have too much already, continuing the cycle of environmental pollution and inhumane treatment of livestock, and trampling the family farm.

On Issue 2, I will be voting no to show my support for sustainable agriculture and Ohio family farms. I hope this issue is important enough to you to do the same.


Market Malaise

This past Saturday I took my five-year-old daughter Hannah with me to the Second Street Market in Dayton. The Market is crowded on Saturdays, which can be annoying if you are fighting your way upstream through the schools of people. Crowds, however, are a good sign. Lots of people means lots of business and precious revenue for these local vendors, so I try to check my annoyance at the door, knowing that most of my frustration stems from the fact that I am patience deficient.

Hannah, being a five-year-old, declares immediately that she is hungry and would like a snack. I let her make the decision as to what we should eat, knowing that I have full veto power to override any choice deemed unappealing to me. Being the vegetable lover that she is, we go for the zucchini “pasta” with pesto from the raw food stand and head outside to the picnic tables to enjoy the beautiful weather.

We had not been sitting long when a husband and wife seat themselves at the same picnic table, only a few feet from us. No sooner had they made themselves comfortable than they began to complain about the Market, basically in its entirety:

Why aren’t all the vendors at the Market every day it is open, instead of just on Saturdays? Why can’t the produce vendors be there every day?
Why does it have to be so crowded on Saturdays?
It’s so annoying to have all these strollers and families everywhere.
Why do people bring their kids to the market?

And then she said it, the thing that caused my temper to rise and my fairly nonexistent patience to evaporate completely:

“I mean, I don’t bring my DOG to the Market.”

Are you freaking serious??? This lady did not just compare children to her pet.

Now don’t get me wrong. I have seen plenty of children that act like hairy, ill-mannered little animals, but that I blame on their parents. This lovely couple was issuing a blanket condemnation on all children, even the well-behaved ones like my daughter, who just happened to be sitting a mere few feet away from this malcontented duo. At this point nothing would have given me greater satisfaction than to go over and slap the contempt right off their faces. Knowing that this would probably not be the best example to set for my daughter, I laughed instead.

“What’s so funny Mama?” Hannah asked. “The ridiculousness of other people,” was my reply.

Here’s the thing about the Second Street Market, a tidbit of obvious information for seemingly everyone else in the greater Dayton area save these two sour grapes: this Market is specifically geared towards families. Shhh, don’t tell anyone! Seriously, how could you miss the clown in giant shoes making balloon sculptures for all the kids?

To me, the importance of creating a family-friendly atmosphere in a marketplace is of great importance. Here is an invaluable opportunity for me to show my daughter an alternative to shopping in a “big box” store or grocery store where tomatoes are shiny and show no dirt and eggs are without feathers in chilled cases. Here at the Market she can see how all these lovely vegetables look as soon as they are plucked from their soil beds by the hands of the farmers who grew them. Here she can see rainbow eggshells that when cracked will yield yolks of beautiful orange. Here a proud vendor will whip out his pocketknife to let us sample his wonderfully earthy tomatoes, his eyes showing pride and excitement. Here we can buy our couscous and quinoa from an ornery man who is always ready with a silly story. And here I can hand my folded bills to the sweet Amish man who sells us chow-chow and bread-and-butter pickles canned by his own family.

This type of camaraderie and transparency are so crucial in the marketplace both for vendor and customer; each has a vested interest in the product as creator and consumer. It is this interaction with both vendor and vegetable, merchant and meat that I see as invaluable in forming my daughter’s attitude towards food and the means of procuring it.

If you can’t see the importance of teaching such lessons, stay the hell home, shop at “Big Bob’s Wonder Food Emporium” In addition, if you can’t recognize that farming is a more than full-time job which requires you to actually be on the farm working the land that supports your market wares, thusly making it impossible to be at the Market several days a week, go through a Wendy’s drive-thru or eat a frozen dinner. Don’t come to the Market anymore.


Food for Thought

Pause and reflect before you take your next ill-fated trip to McDonald's, Taco Bell, Wendy's Burger King, Friday's, Applebee's, Chili's, Wal-Mart, Meijer, Kroger...

If you think the beef, pork, and poultry you are buying and consuming from these "food" outlets is the 100% real deal, you are sadly mistaken. If you are imagining pastoral scenes of cattle roaming freely on grasslands, pigs rooting in the forest, and chickens happily scratching for bugs around the farm, you should now take those images, inject them with bacteria, cut off their feet, put them in a dark and dirty place, and then take a giant crap on their heads.

Now you know what is really in your Whoppers and McNuggets.

Here are some real, and really horrifying facts:

Over half of the world's beef comes from feedlots.

Half of the world's pork and poultry come from factory farms.

A mere pound of feedlot ground beef can contain the leftover bits from hundreds of cows from several different countries.

Feedlot ground beef contains microbes that are primarily spread through fecal matter.
Hogs are raised on crap-filled feed lots too. Their crap is stored in huge uncovered lagoons, their contents seeping into groundwater. Just imagine what a flood or hurricane could do (Hurricane Floyd in 1999 caused such flooding, resulting in tons of dead fish and million spent in cleanup costs).

Factory farm chickens spend their entire lives indoors stuck in cages. They don't fly, they don't walk, they don't peck, they don't strut. To up egg production in hens, they are only given one hour of light a day. Apparently, these conditions make them more than a little crazy; they peck each other and even eat each other. To prevent this, their beaks and feet are merely cut off. Their immune systems also fail, so they're pumped full of antibiotics, just like feedlot cattle and hogs.

Ever wonder what these animals eat? Ground up in their corn laden meal is the remains of other dead animals. Yes, that's right. Cows are eating other dead cows, not to mention chickens and horses. Chickens are eating dead cows.

And here's my favorite: the beef industry buys up loads of dead cats and dogs from shelters and puts them in cattle feed. Cats. And Dogs. And roadkill too.

Not only are these practices disturbing from a moral standpoint, think about all the disease that is spread around by all the residual crap ( and I mean crap in the most literal sense here) that is ground up with all these animal parts.

Perhaps a better slogan for McDonald's could be "Da da da da da...I'm lovin' **it!"

So please, I implore you, before you swing through that drive-through or buy those frozen chicken breasts, really stop to think about what it is you are putting into your bodies. More importantly, what it is you are putting into your children's bodies.

You are what you eat.



Ahhhh Spring! Welcome back in all your pollen-laden, rain-drenched glory!

There are a lot of aspects of an Ohio spring I could gladly do without: the allergies, the schizophrenic weather, the new bug population... Even after all the years I have lived here it never ceases to amaze me how one week I can be trudging through several inches of snow and the next week it is eighty-five degrees.

And yet, even as I get out my winter coat one more time after a weekend spent in shorts and head to the drugstore for another bottle of Zyrtec, I feel as if a great weight has been lifted off my shoulders and I can finally breathe again. The grey and leaden shroud of winter has finally been lifted and life has returned. Days are longer, I hear birds in the morning, and everything is growing. Everywhere I look I see buds and flowers and all shades of greens, yellows, pinks, and purples. Of course all of these growing things bring with them that agent of misery which cause so many of us to stumble about in a sneezing, sniffing allergy haze: pollen. But here's the thing: without this stuff, life would be pretty bland. Not only would we be without all of those beautiful flowers, plants, and trees, all of that lovely produce that we gorge ourselves on during the warmer months would not happen. To me, that would just make life just about unliveable.

As much as I love the long, slow-cooked flavors of winter, my mouth literally waters at the prospect of a big bowl of juicy watermelon, a plate full of earthy tomatoes, or a simple dessert of sweet peaches carmelized on the grill. I am a sucker for vibrant colors and flavors, so of course using these foods in my menus makes me all kinds of happy. So I encourage all of you to take full advantage of all spring, summer, and even early fall have to offer. Plant some tomatoes, fire up the grill, throw some beers on ice, and enjoy the bounty.*

*It so happens that I will be teaching a cooking class at the Dorothy Lane Market School of Cooking on July 9th that is aimed at highlighting the produce of summer.


One Nation, Under Corn

Have you all seen the new high fructose corn syrup commercials brought to us by the “health-conscious” Corn Refiner’s Association? Frankly I breathed a sigh of relief when I discovered that this group has finally recognized that the public health is more important than profit. Oh wait. Let me put down my crack pipe.

According to their ads, high fructose corn syrup is “made from corn, has the same calories as sugar, it’s fine in moderation, it doesn’t have artificial ingredients”. Well big freaking deal.
The corn that is used to make commercially refined fructose is commodity corn. Commodity corn is the stuff you see growing all over the Midwest, especially Iowa. Let’s follow the history of this product for a bit.

On a huge monoculture farm (that means they only grow one crop) in the middle of Iowa, a farmer is growing acre upon acre upon acre of corn. This is not the corn your grandpa grew in the backyard garden patch that you threw on the grill with your chicken. This is the corn that goes to feed livestock, and of course, us. Now why is our farmer planting so much corn? Because he is going broke. You see, he’s not the only farmer around growing all this corn; every farmer around him is doing the same thing (you see the same problem with soybeans). Now there is a problem of overproduction and the resulting problem of falling prices. So the logical and obvious problem would be to cut production. Well, this isn’t going to happen because there is no coordinated effort between these farmers to monitor the corn market. What our farmer does know is that we the American taxpayers subsidize every bushel of corn he can produce. So, in order to maintain his cash flow, he plants more corn. And so the cycle continues.

So now you ask, where in the world is all this corn going? Right into your mouths. This corn is fed to cattle, with disastrous results. You see, cows are ruminants, which means they are meant to eat grasses…not corn. Well, you see, we have all this extra corn laying around, so we will feed it to all these cows living on their giant feces-filled feedlots. This corn makes cows sick; it is too starchy for them to digest. The corn causes them to bloat and acidifies their rumen (their digestive organ that enables them to process grasses), which in turn can ulcerate, sending bacteria into the bloodstream and abscessing the liver. This problem is fixed by shooting them up with toxic antibiotics, such as Rumensin. This drug is so toxic in fact that humans and even dairy cows cannot take it. This is the beef you will find on the shelves at most grocery stores and restaurants (both fast food and “finer” dining establishments). And corn is not reserved for cattle alone; because of this huge surplus of corn and the cheapness of feeding animals with it, the USDA is encouraging the use of corn feed with pigs, chickens, and even fish (corn-fed salmon anyone?).

So the animals are fed, but there is still all this corn. What else can be done with it? Well, scientists discovered some time ago that corn is a starch that can be easily broken down and reassembled as a myriad of sweeteners and additives. And guess what? These sweeteners are cheaper than sugar and these additives are a cheap substitute for real flavor and quality products. Sweeteners made from corn include corn syrups, dextrose, high fructose corn syrups, and crystalline fructose. Basic corn syrups can be found in salad dressings, condiments, and canned fruits. Dextrose is used to sweeten jams, jellies, chewing gum, and even low calorie beer. High fructose corn syrup can be found in virtually every processed food, ice creams, soft drinks, and so-called “light” foods. Crystalline fructose is used in presweetened cereals and other dry mix products.

The list of food additives derived from corn is staggering:
Calcium lactate or stearate
Calcium stearoyl lactylate
Dextrin or Dextrose
Ethyl maltol
Fumaric or Lactic acid
Gluconolactone or Glucono delta-lactone
Hydrolyzed vegetable protein
Linoleic acid
Malt, Maltodextrin, Maltose or Maltol
Potassium gluconate
Propylene glycol monostearate
Sodium ascorbate or other ascorbates
Sodium stearoyl fumarate
Sodium-, Magnesium-, Calcium- or Potassium-fumarate
Stearyl citrate
Tocopherol (alpha-Tocopherol, vitamin E)

These additives run rampant on the list of ingredients of processed mass-produced foods and fast foods. Pretty much anything that comes in a box and is found in the center aisles of your grocery store are going to contain both corn sweeteners and additives. Why? The answer again, is cost. We take all this cheap corn we still have around and use it to sweeten, flavor, thicken, stabilize, and preserve inferior food products.

Why are we as a nation (and increasingly as a global population) so accepting of these practices? One answer is ignorance. We are under the impression that institutions such as the USDA and FDA, the American Beef Council, and the Corn Refiner’s Association, are all joining hands and forces to make the world a better and healthier place. In reality, it once again boils down to money. Money from the government to farmers, money from the ranching and farming associations back to the government, profits for the giant food conglomerates, profits for the restaurant chains, profits for the grocery store chains. The reality is that none of them truly give a damn about you or your family’s health. They turn a blind eye to the effects of their products and their marketing campaigns on us and our children.

We cannot, however, place all the blame solely on the producers. We are just as culpable and need to hold ourselves accountable for our own decisions and habits. We have conditioned ourselves into a nation of convenience and speed. We have taken the tools of modern industry and applied them blindly to food. We as imperfect human beings have decided that the food products we have engineered are much better than anything God created to sustain us. We have chosen to become a sedentary society. We take the supersize option in the name of savings, blow through the drive-through to save time, and add water to a box of dried nothingness because we think it tastes good. Well guess what? We are reaping the consequences with no apparent benefits. Supersizing our meals (and this includes huge portion sizes at home) has added additional calories to each meal, energy which will not be burned off anytime soon as we sit on front of the TV or at our desks at work. We have now supersized ourselves. We go through the restaurant drive-through, scarfing our food on the go and forcing our kids to do the same, ingesting that delightful commodity corn in everything from our hamburger meat, the bun, the “special sauce” , the fries, and our bucket of soda. And don’t think you are doing better if you opt for the “grilled” chicken option. Do you think the kid getting paid minimum wage working in the bowels of your local burger joint is actually grilling anything? Heck no! The fact is “grill flavor” has been added to your chicken…an additive derived from none other than (drum roll please) corn!

But we are just so busy! And the people at Hormel/Kraft/Nabisco/Insert Name Here have created this wonderful product where all I have to do is open this box, throw the contents into a crock pot, add water, and turn it on! Let’s think about this. The “food” you are supposedly preparing is allegedly meat, vegetables, and potatoes, all foods that will spoil in their natural form. So how do we keep them from going bad? Let’s put it all in a box, add preservatives and additives, and presto! It’s a miracle! Pot roast in a box that will keep for two years!
Of course now we see that we are getting fat and developing diseases such as diabetes and heart disease at an accelerated rate and at younger and younger ages. Our child has the heart of a forty-five year old and can’t walk up the steps at school without getting winded. So what do we do? Bring on the Lean Cuisine! I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but the same stuff you find in the foods that are making us fat are also found in these so-called healthy foods. Not to mention their sodium content. What about low-fat and low calorie and enriched and fortified? Aren’t food products that make these claims going to make me healthier? Most likely no. More and more researchers are finding that when you remove naturally occurring fat and calories and fortify with vitamins and minerals that are not naturally there, your body does not reap the benefits of these foods (For example, vitamin D is fat-soluble. When you remove the fat from food, the vehicle for absorption is no longer there. The same with adding such vitamins to food that don’t contain fat. We will explore all of this at a later date.).

So how does all of this pertain to the HFCS commercials now showing on our televisions? Well, think about the answer to this question as you sit on your couch all night watching Desperate Housewives, eating your Big Mac (with a Diet Coke of course), and watching your nine-year-old daughter try on her new clothes from the junior’s department.

But please do not become completely despondent. There are solutions to these problems, and I hope to address them in writings to come. In the meantime, go eat an apple…and take a walk.


Cold Weather, Warm Pot

The weather the past few days was such a tease; I know we are completely in the throes of winter when 45 degrees feels absolutely balmy and I go running around with no coat. Of course this did not last. Upon leaving dinner last night the icy fingers of winter scooped us up in their frigid grip and needlessly reminded us that it is still merely January and we cannot truly hope for consistently warm weather until at least May.

Sigh...I truly dislike cold weather. Of course I wouldn't appreciate warm weather nearly as much if we did not have its opposite. Curse you logic!

There are few things about these cold long months that I appreciate, much less get excited about. I do love Christmas in all its celebratory glory, but I always brace myself for the dreariness of the new year. Everything is bare and stripped of life, and every year I wonder if the trees, flowers, and even weeds will stir up the motivation to grow again, casting their vivid contrast to the overwhelming greyness.

What I can appreciate, and in fact look somewhat forward to, are the foods of winter. This is the time of year when I can use the oven everyday without turing the kitchen into a sauna. I can make those long-cooked super-savory dishes that are just too heavy and hot for the summer months. I can braise, I can roast, I can bake, I can long- simmer, coaxing big flavors out of simple ingredients.

I have come to realize during this never-ending month of January that these winter cooking methods lend themselves beautifully to our country's current circumstances. The economy is greatly struggling and money is tight; food prices are ridiculous, jobs are disappearing and companies are folding. These are not filet and porterhouse times; these are short rib and oxtail times. These are the times when those so-called "cheap" cuts of meat shine in all their fatty and flavorful glory.

Over the past few weeks I have made chicken carbonnade (made with chicken thighs, which frankly are much more flavorful and cheaper than breasts), porter beer braised short ribs, and braised oxtails with chorizo. What is also so wonderful about these dishes is that their accompaniments are usually cost-efficient as well: onions, garlic, carrot, celery, bacon, egg noodles, white rice. These meals have been satisfying in so many ways. I appreciate that I don't have to spend a ridiculous amount of money to obtain full, bold flavor. I know that I have supported local farmers by buying their products for my family to eat. Most of all, I enjoy creating these dishes, patiently waiting for them to show their personalities and savoring them with complete satisfaction.