Friday, July 11, 2008

Priced out

Reading the letters on an article at Salon about pork, I came across this:

It's easy to talk about "meat should cost more money", when you are like Rebecca Traister and you can afford to live in an airy apartment in an elite neighborhood and order boutique meats to share with your chef boyfriend. It's easy when you are a singleton or a DINK, and you have six figure incomes and trust funds, and you eat at 4-star restaurants, and put tiny portions of expensive foods in your Sub-Zero refrigerator.

It's not so easy when you are a single mom with three kids, or elderly and living on a fixed income. When you have to feed four or five hungry people, and the "precious pork bellies" from Niman Ranch costs $12.99 a pound, and basically it comes down to this: you can't afford meat at all. And look around people (especially if you live near a Whole Foods): it's not just chi-chi meat....once you get started on that, then it's precious heirloom vegetables and precious artisan cheese from heirloom goats and precious stoneground heirloom wheat bread baked in a special heirloom hearth oven...

Pretty soon, there is nothing out there that is less than $22 a pound, and there is almost nothing that a family could cook and cheap inexpensively. Oh right -- except for lentils. As we all know, the poor should be eating lentil soup, every single solitary day of the week. It's so nourishing and cheap, and why, isn't that what the poor people ate in Dickensian England? Who wouldn't want to return to that scenario?

The anti-"elitist" sentiment like the letter above and the vegans were all abuzz. This time I found myself siding with the vegans. The idea that not eating meat means eating crappy lentil soup is ridiculous.

The truth is that recently I've been priced out of meat. I'm between jobs and I figure that if I can't afford good meat, I'm not going to buy it at all.

And guess what? I haven't died of malnutrition, nor have I gained any weight. My food expenses have been halved even though I'm still buying at the farmer's market.

Really though, my diet is far from Dickensian. Vegetarian fare has come a long way in the past decade, so instead of eating bland stew, you can eat a savory dal or spicy curry.

Here is a better letter:

Maybe the key to enjoying humane pork is to cut back on how often you eat it so you can afford to buy it. Like a treat rather than a staple. You don't have to eat meat for every meal or heck, every day, or heck every other day.

I was a vegetarian for years, and even though I eat meat now and have no quibble with those who abstain or who gorge on it, I can't help but think that though human beings were made to eat meat, we weren't made to eat so much of it. (Of course, there are exceptions based on geography, so I'll say Americans weren't made to eat meat every day.)

When my mom was growing up in the South, they used smoked hamhocks, bacon, fatback, etc. to season all of their greens, turnips, etc. They'd cook some cornbread and that was all they had for dinner; no seperate steak or pork chop. For lunch it was biscuits and drippings (don't ask.) And those hearty breakfasts you hear so much about? Well, they certainly didn't have bacon, eggs, sausauge, biscuits, gravy, grits, etc., every day of the week.

And they weren't weak or protein starved, even though they didn't get to actually eat a pork chop or rack of ribs or a steak every day. They ate, if lucky, one serving of meat a day, more like flavoring, and they were thankful for it because if they didn't slaughter the animal outright, they had to butcher and clean it. Ham and pork belly and pigs feet were treats, not daily staples. (mmm, pigs feet. I don't know why I love them so much, but I do.)

Unfortunately, nowadays, factory farming has made meat so cheap you can afford to eat those huge down home Southern meals everyday. And its killing us. There's this great Boondocks episode about this.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Get Toasted

Chef Eric Ripert's blog Avec Eric has fantastic recipes for the much neglected toaster oven. These days I'm loving toaster ovens because who wants to fire up a giant regular oven and heat up your home to make a panini or something simple? A toaster oven is energy efficient and simple to use!

Friday, June 20, 2008

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Re-Indigenizing Our Diets II

Part II

Knowing all of this, I started to become convinced that agriculture really was the worst mistake in human history. Our genes have changed very little since Paleolithic times, obviously the agricultural diet was pure poison to the human as a species.

But that’s why my story has to once again veer back to a focus on Native Americans, who present a two-fold paradox, highlighted in Gary Nabhan’s book Why Some Like it Hot. First, for Native Americans, many modern foods are not just unhealthy like they are for Europeans, they are downright toxic. This highlights the fact that the “very little” gene change still matters. Second, most Native Americans had already adopted agriculture before contact with Europeans, yet few of these agricultural civilizations were teeming with the misery blamed on agriculture.

In fact, comparisons of Native Americans agriculturalist with their hunter-gatherer counterparts show that their indicators of health, from obesity levels to cardiovascular health, are remarkably similar. Overall, Native American agricultural diets deviate very little from the nutritional precepts of the Paleolithic diet. Growing crops for thousands of years allowed them to adjust the diet to be more nutritionally fulfilling, such as treating corn with lime to release B vitamins and pairing it with beans to provide complete amino acids.

Another striking point is that the pictures of healthy teeth in Weston Price’s study included Peruvian potato farmers and milk-drinking Masai. Neither do farmers have a monopoly on bad teeth: cavaties show up in Sonoran desert foragers with a taste for sweet cactus fruit and Papua New Guinans who live among plentiful beehives. Native peoples aren’t being poisoned by agriculture, they are being poisoned by our agriculture, specifically, modern industrialized agriculture.

In the Americas, several powerful agricultural civilizations rose to power and then abruptly died out. In Jared Diamond’s Collapse, he profiles the Maya of Central America and the Anasazi of Southwestern North America. In both cases, Diamond says the collapse was caused growing populations that had to rely on more and more intense agriculture, similar to modern intensive agriculture, which eventually led to the dooming resource degradation. Looking at the impressive ruins that these peoples left in their wake, we may be tempted to call them “great civilizations.” Perhaps they were great in some ways, but ultimately this greatness was short-lived. Contrast them with smaller agricultural societies that survived until colonization, and in some cases, still survive, and the failings of these “great civilizations” become apparent.

These successful agricultural civilizations were successful because while they embraced technology, they did not forget the land, with both its wealth and its limitations. Many of them continued to rely on wild foods, such as the Pima, who gleaned 60% of their food from agriculture in wet years, but only 20% in dry years. Others used a hybrid system, applying cultivation techniques to wild plants, such as the Karuk in California who used controlled burns to increase acorn yields and the Ojibwe in Minnesota who practiced intentional resowing of wild rice . Even cultivated fields were not divorced from the wild. In Mexican Tepehuan fields, Teosinte, wild corn, was welcomed because it often bred with cultivated varieties, producing offspring with “hybrid vigor.” Pima used wild peppers in a similar way and used other wild plants to shade their crops from the hot desert sun.

Indigenous agriculture also relied on more varieties that modern industrial agriculture does. Much of our modern diet relies on only a few different crops like corn and wheat. Within these crops, we commercially cultivate only a few out of the thousands of varieties that exist. Different varieties, despite being the same species, not only taste different, but often provide a different mixture of nutrients and secondary chemicals, mirroring the diversity of plants relied on in Paleolithic diets.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Food for thought

I think obesity is a problem, but I think Japan's practice of policing it is frightening. It's something to think about when considering government and health care. It might give the government a rationale to further tweak our bodies for better or worse. Considering the close ties between the food industry and government and the laughable piece of clip art that passes for a food pyramid...I think it's a reason to worry.

Friday, June 6, 2008

New Pornographers + Slow Food

@ Slow Food Nation. Too bad I'm out of the country by then, but hopefully it there will be other Slow Food Nation celebrations in the future.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Re-Indigenizing Our Diets I

I was nineteen when I was diagnosed with my first ulcer. The doctor looked at my family’s medical history with dismay, noting both my parent’s struggles with chronic stomach problems and suggested I start taking medicine to counteract the acidity of my stomach and the cramping in my lower intestine. The following year was a battle between myself and my rebellious stomach. Despite subsisting on what the doctor’s claimed was the safest diet, a blame regime of bananas, yogurt, and bread, nothing seemed to get better. On a desperate visit to the college acute care clinic, the middle-aged doctor told me that his entire family had the same problems, and like him, I should expect to be on my medication for the rest of my life. Food became my enemy and the thought of dinner was one of dread.

I was no stranger to medical disorder. Like my mother, I had also suffered from severe asthma and like my father I had a congenitally misaligned jaw. I accepted these inheritances as my lot in life and thanked my lucky stars that I had been born in modern times.

The first inkling I got that I might not be so lucky was my sophomore year of college, when I was assigned an essay called The Worst Mistake by Jared Diamond. I had read several of his books, but I had never encountered such an infuriating idea. He dared to imply that agriculture, the foundation of all modern society, was a mistake. To me, agriculture was the mother of all I loved. It had allowed us to break free of our state of nature, which Hobbes famously called “nasty, brutish, and short.” Because of agriculture, Chopin had played his etudes, Michelangelo had painted the sublime Sistine chapel, Homer had written his epics…and I had my very thick glasses that allowed me to read them. I set out to prove him wrong.

A dramatic and unintentional experiment on the effects of modern agriculture is being played out right now. The subjects are the native peoples of America and while the results may be more exaggerated than what happens to the average person, they may hold the key to the disorders that plague modern society.

The most prevalent disease that accompanies civilization is sometimes simply called “Syndrome X,” a deadly cocktail of high blood pressure, high triglycerides, high cholesterol and obesity that is linked with heart disease and diabetes . In indigenous populations, this Syndrome X has reached epidemic levels. While it has also increased in the general population, the increase in indigenous populations has been much larger. Native Americans have two times the heart disease and seven times the rates of diabetes . It affects nearly every Native American population, from the Ojibwa-Cree in Northern Canada with the third highest rate of type II diabetes in the world to the Pima in the American Southwest who are the second most obese people in the world to Native Hawaiians who have twice the national level of heart disease .

The end result of Syndrome X is type II diabetes, a disease of chronically high blood sugar . In a healthy person, sugar stimulates the pancreas to produce insulin, which leads to sugar being absorbed by the cell, but in a diabetic, but the process has stopped working because so much sugar has been consumed that the receptors malfunction. The sugar remains in the blood stream and in high levels it can become toxic. Even with treatment, diabetics can suffer from high rates of vision problems, kidney failure, cardiovascular disease, and in the worst cases, gangrene. On a visit to a Pima reservation, reporter Malcolm Gladwell described the carnage: 300-pound pre-diabetic teenagers, young women confined to wheelchairs, and middle-aged men dependent on kidney dialysis. In most towns in America the same scene of carnage is repeated, but typically only in homes and hospitals catering to the elderly.

The stark fact is that when Native Americans first made contact with Europeans, no such illnesses existed. They emerged only as their societies adopted western foods such as white flour and sugar.

Foods like white flour and sugar have been connected with disease in every society on earth. However, for Native Americans and other indigenous populations, it seems these foods are more toxic than normal. These foods were a product of thousands of years of agriculture in Europe, whereas as Louis LaRose, a member of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, describes it: “we’re only two or three generations removed from picking berries, we were not designed to do all our hunting in aisles A, B, and C. ”

In reality, no human was designed for the modern diet. Humans have not changed much since the Paleolithic, when all humans lived as hunter-gatherers . It is commonly believed that hunter-gatherers live short, harsh lives, but science come to different conclusions. As I researched the effects of agriculture, I learned that studies of modern hunter-gatherers show that they not only obtain an average of 2116 calories a day, but they only have to work 4-5 hours a day for their food . While they are unable to accumulate possessions like shiny cars or ipods, disease is rare. Modern hunter-gatherers have usually been pushed to marginal land, so it’s possible that ancient hunter-gatherers lived in even greater abundance. In a seminal essay on the subject, Anthropologist Marshall Sahlins called it “the original affluent society,” challenging the notion that wealth is about possessions, instead connecting it to health.

Through bones and other human remains, anthropologists have been able to paint a picture of the diet humans evolved to eat and the effects of agriculture on human diet and health. It’s impossible to perfectly reconstruct the original human diet, but a few tenets have emerged. Scientists have concluded that the Paleolithic diet was low in sugar, high in “good” fats, high in micronutrients, low in acid, high in potassium, and high in fiber . Very few grains and tubers were consumed, and milk, eggs, beans, alcohol, and refined sugar were entirely absent.
Modern diet gurus often vilify certain macronutrients like fat or carbohydrates as “bad,” but hunter-gatherer diets were healthy no matter the composition. That composition varies from the Eskimos, who ate an astonishing 185 grams of fat a day, to the Yanomamo, who primarily subsisted on high-carbohydrate plant foods .

The food itself was the difference. Meat from a wild animal is not the same as the ground beef from a fast-food burger. Wild game is typical lower in total fat, especially saturated fat, which has been linked to heart disease . However, wild game is higher in the “good” fats such as omega-3 fatty acids. Recent science has shown that omega-3 fatty acids are vital in heart and brain health . Unfortunately, in the western diet, omega-3 fatty acids have literally been literally out-competed by their cousins, omega-6 fatty acids, which are present in high levels in seeds, a staple of western diets in the form of grains and oils. The receptors that process these fats work best when the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is 2.3:1, but in the western diet the average ratio is 15:1. This explains why Eskimos, who still consume large amounts of seafood rich in omega-3 fatty acids now suffer from symptoms of omega-3 deficiency -- the fats in the new foods cancel them out .

Even the plant foods were different. Overall, more leaves were consumed than seeds. Some peoples consumed staple foods, but overall they relied on hundreds of diverse plants . The plants they consumed were rich in complex secondary compounds, which are known to affect genetic expression and metabolism Little is known about the effects of having a diet less rich in these secondary compounds we evolved to consume, but scientists suspect their absence is connected to diseases such as cancer.

Most sugar consumed by early humans was in the form of fruits, but fruits were also different. Wild fruits contain more fructose and glucose, whereas cultivated varieties contain more sucrose. They are also higher in fiber and those secondary compounds.

The dawn of agriculture 12,000 years ago left its mark on human skeletons. Agriculture developed independently in as many as seven places and archeologists who survey skeletons find that as civilizations increased their reliance on agriculture, their bone-health deteriorated. This does not exempt American civilizations. The Mayans heavy reliance on corn, a food that lacks important nutrients and impedes absorption of others, led to shrunken skeletons deformed from pellagra. At Dickson Mounds in Illinois, studies show that first farmers in the area had lived an average of 19 years compared to the 26 years their hunter-gather predecessors enjoyed.

One of the more dramatic illustrations of the effect of agriculture came from a paper by an intrepid dentist named Weston A. Price, who traveled the world in search of the cause of poor dental health. In his work, he juxtaposed pictures of traditional hunter-gatherers, smiling with straight white teeth, with those who had adopted “modern foods” like sugar and boiled potatoes, who had crooked jaws and blackened teeth. The changes happened in as little as one generation, squarely laying the cause on food, not genes. I started wondering if my crooked teeth were really all my father’s fault.

Some links, a full bibliography at the end

Price, Weston. 1945. Nutrition and physical degeneration a comparison of primitive and modern diets and their effects

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Interesting article about food detectives, but I found this part scary (emphasis mine):

A few years ago, they received a utility blade that a consumer claimed to have found in a canned tomato product. The case fell to Jim Charboneau, a chemist who has been with the lab for more than 40 years. Through the processor's records, he was able to determine that it had been packed and sealed a year earlier. The blade sported a few stains but still looked new. So Charboneau wanted to see what an identical blade would look like if it sat in a can of tomato sauce for a year and compare it to the sample. He put identical blades in different cans of sauce and sealed them. After a month, he opened one can and found the blade had etching on its surface. After two months, he opened another. That blade had deteriorated more than the first. When he opened another can after three months, he couldn't find a blade. It had been eaten away by the natural acidity of the sauce.

I think I'll pass on the canned food unless there has been a hurricane and I'm stuck without supplies for weeks...or something.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Chive-Goat Cheese Drop Biscuits

Chive-Goat Cheese Drop Biscuits
I adapted this recipe to use local goat cheese and chives. Really delicious and easy.
Adapted from Epicurious

2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
6 oz crumbled young local goat cheese, usually called chèvre
8 local chives
1 cup well-shaken buttermilk or 1 cup milk + 2 tbsp apple cider vinegar

Preheat oven to 450°F.

Whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a bowl, then blend in butter with your fingertips until mixture resembles coarse meal. Stir in cheese and chives. Add buttermilk and stir until just combined.

Drop dough in 12 equal mounds about 2 inches apart onto a buttered large baking sheet. Bake in middle of oven until golden, 18 to 20 minutes.

Working on the farm

With Migrant Workers in Short Supply, a Farmer Looks to Machines

NYT Readers respond with a great deal of ignorance, suggesting we substitute criminals and teenagers for immigrants

There was an article in the NYT a few weeks back about the poor job market for teens. But what people don't realize is that the problem with industrial ag jobs is not that they are dirty or menial, it's that they are downright dangerous. The machines can crush you and the pesticides are toxic. Most farm kids I know who come from large farms won't work in their own fields because of this. It's a job with high potential costs.

Small organic farms? Many ag student compete to do "menial" things like pick spinach as interns. The best organic farms turn down interns because they have so many applicants.

Another reason to eat label-free

I think one of the best diet tips I ever heard was that if it has a label, you shouldn't eat much of it. Apples, spinach, and turnips? They don't need labels.

Turns out, in New Zealand, those labels aren't very accurate anyway. Given our government's track record, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that most U.S. labels are inaccurate too.

Monday, May 26, 2008


Since I started working in agriculture, I've met a great deal of farmers. On of the farmers I've worked closely with called farming "nature's gym." He, like many farmers who practice labor-intensive small scale agriculture, was about as fit as many elite athletes I know. This contrasts with the larger farmers I know, who are easier picked out because...well they are much larger.

Underscores the fact that while "saving" labor is economically efficient, there are costs and benefits that aren't often factored in. Most farmers labor much less than their counterparts in the past, but perhaps they pay for it in terms of health problems.

Last week I worked on his farm and while my muscles may be uneven (it's much harder to hoe with my puny left arm), they sure are large. The other farmer, a woman, told me that just like any sport, it's important to have good technique on the farm if you want to prevent injuries.

I say this because I find it interesting that so many people spend hours and hours in smelly boring gyms...when they could get a garden instead. I personally have shied away from gyms after I realized that the cleaning chemicals many gyms use seem to bother my lungs. I've felt much better since I've stopped going.

Small farms should market "exercise agri-tourism" or something. Suburbanites get skinny, farmers get free labor.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Foie Gras

So foie gras is now legal in Chicago again. PETA says:

Foie gras is a diseased, rotting organ of an abused animal with a high price tag slapped onto it. The aldermen -- who voted overwhelmingly for the ban (48 to 1) -- were right the first time in banning this hideously cruel product. With foie gras bans already in effect in more than a dozen countries and a growing of number people learning about the cruelty of foie gras production, this industry's days are numbered.

I have no problem with the part about people learning about the cruelty and thus buying less, effectively killing the industry. I do have a problem with one group imposing its fringe philosophy on another. With their logic, lots of other products would be banned as well. I might not like foie gras, but I'm not going to tell others they can't eat it.

Actually, I had never heard of it before the ban and ordered it after I read about it because I wanted to be rebellious. They say no publicity is bad publicity. I'm sure the ban made many people curious.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Harvest Moon

Much of the eco-crowd likes to trash video games. Occasionally, I do agree. At their worst they can suck people's lives away. But I would like to admit that video games were one of the reasons I got into farming. Harvest Moon, a series of Japanese video games centered on farming, are my favorite video games. I started playing them when the first one came out for the original game boy in America and I still play them, primarily while traveling since otherwise I don't have much free time.

A locavore's dream, the Harvest Moon games are focused on small-scale farming and tight-knit local communities. You get rewards for talking with your neighbors and treating your cows well. Contrast that with popular games like Grand Theft Auto where you get points for running over people and slapping around prostitutes.

While there are lots and lots of differences between Harvest Moon and real farming, I did learn some key things:
1. Repetitive work is not always bad. In fact, it can be quite comforting. Planting seedlings, hoeing, and transplanting leeks....fantastic stress relief.
2. Have picnics on your farm. It connects people to where their food comes from and helps build community ties.
3. If you have a small farm, diversify! It's a lot easier to stay afloat if you rely on multiple sources of income.
4. Don't forget about foraging. In the game, wild foods can be a source of income and sustenance.
5. Plant your crops in a way that makes later chores like weeding less taxing.

However, Harvest Moon is not a how-to-farm game. It's very much simplified. There is no starting seeds inside, nor insect pests, and soil is woefully ignored. I want the next games to reward good crop rotation or something.

Saturday, May 10, 2008


Gastrofacist, n. A person who believes that government should micromanage the food supply as per their own personal interests.

A la ethanol and now Gordan Ramsay:

Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay says British restaurants should be fined if they serve fruit and vegetables which are not in season. He told the BBC that fruit and vegetables should be locally-sourced and only on menus when in season. Mr Ramsay said he had already spoken to Prime Minister Gordon Brown about outlawing out-of-season produce.


Gastrolibertarian, n. A person who believes that government should have a limited role in the food system.

Anthony Bourdain
Taras Grescoe
Joel Salatin
Many in the raw milk crowd

Varying degrees here: Taras believes the government should help manage fisheries, protect endangered species, etc., whereas Salatin is more like a agrarian"gastro-anarchist."

Friday, May 9, 2008

Slimy slow release

Hi Melissa,
I'm visiting your blog from Fanatic Cook. I like what you write about! Nice blog! Re what you said on Bix's blod, just wondering what sorts of foods are included in the "mucilaginous carb" category (hope it's not okra--ick!). Thanks!

I mentioned this with respect to native diets and Why Some Like It Hot, Nabhan's excellent book. In that book he mentions that many native foods, when ingested, do not spike blood all. From a botanical standpoint, many of these are desert plants that have evolved in a way to defend themselves against moisture loss. Most of them are considered mucilaginous, an appetizing (or not) word meaning "Having the nature or properties of mucilage; of a soft, moist, and viscous quality or appearance, slimy."

Slimy? While that might not sound delicious, it keeps these foods slow in your digestive system. This is a boon if you have blood sugar issues, but also for a host of other health problems like IBS. These foods also keep you satiated for longer than average.

Some of the foods he mentions include Southwestern prickly pear and other cacti, Australian bush potato, and mesquite. More common foods that are considered mucilaginous include, yes, okra, but also purslane, seaweed, flax, oats, and cucumbers.

Not So Sweet

Another reason to avoid sugar:

A new option available to farmers this year is Monsanto's Roundup Ready sugar beet, genetically engineered to survive multiple direct applications of the weed killer, Roundup. At the request of Monsanto, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency increased the allowable amount of glyphosate residues on sugar beetroots by a whopping 5,000% -- glyphosate is the active ingredient in Roundup. Sugar is extracted from the beet's root and the inevitable result is more glyphosate in our sugar. This is not good news for those who want to enjoy their chocolate morsels without the threat of ingesting toxic weed killer.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Native American Diets

Made this food web (not pyramid) for a class. Native Americans, from Hawaii to Alaska, had diverse pre-contact diets, but this shows a lot of common ones, as well as some nutritional principles. Note the absence of certain foods.

No bread, no refined sugar, no dairy, no factory-farmed meats. Anyone can benefit from emulating Native American diets. If there is one thing I learned from studying them, it's that what you eat matters, but what you don't eat matters a lot more. That's why you see people doing well on both low-fat vegan and high-fat paleo.

Recommended reading
Why Some Like It Hot

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Global Food and Style Expo 2008 Recap

Well...where to start? First of all, while this show is mainly about food (there are a few token clothing booths), it's not the kind of food the average person eats every day. No, this show is mostly about the kind of food you impulse buy at Whole Foods or that comes in a gift basket you got from your boss. Also, it's sort of the antithesis of the local foods crowd: big companies, importers, exporters, etc.

The keynote speaker was Bobby Flay. I was unimpressed, especially when during the Q&A, he entirely dodged a question on food bans. Of course he did have to field some pretty ridiculous questions, including not one, but two not-so-skinny women, complaining about overuse of things like cream and lard , chiding him for not including more low fat foods on his shows. Rightfully, he pointed out that almost no one in this country is fat because of uncommon ingredients like duck lard.

Much of the show was simply overwhelming. At first I wanted to try everything, but I quickly became more selective. You can only stand so many mustard pretzel dips.

One of my first stops was Wholesome Sweetners. On the rare occasion I do bake, I like their rich organic fair-trade brown sugar. Their new raw honey was fantastic, unfortunately, when we asked why they weren't sourcing locally, they said that there were no organic beekeepers in the U.S. Hilarious, one of my companions was an organic beekeeper, and not the only one either.

These cute gummy bears were made with organic tapioca syrup and tasted much better than most vegan gummies.

At another booth I tried Goji berries, which were good, though I think the whole superfood thing is overhyped. That same booth also had yacon chips, made from a Peruvian tuber, which tasted more like melons than potatoes.

Some of the more unusual offerings came from the Japanese and Korean booths. A friendly Japanese businessman expounded on the benefits of the Maitake mushroom, showering us with packets of a maitake supplement. We were confused, but when I got home I looked it up and it seems like it has interesting properties. In the U.S. it is known as Hen of the Woods.

In other news: while I like kimchi, I don't think it's the next sushi.

I loved the truffles from The Tea Room, they were the best I'd had in a long time. The red raspberry rooibos was my favorite. The really really dark chocolate at Vere, was unusual, but people seemed to be flocking to their booth.

The only teas that pretty impressed me was from Great Lakes Tea and Spice. I really liked their peach white blend.

I tasted what seemed like a million dips, but the only memorable ones came from Herbal Delights.

The only clothing that caught my eye was from Synergy, simply because I had bought one of their dresses before and I love the way they fit.

The trends? It seems probiotics are in. Someone was even hawking a probiotic yogurt for dogs. My favorite was the Nancy's Kefir, though I wish they would offer whole milk kefir. Other trends seemed to include granola snacks and raw vegan items.

In the end though, I much prefer more local-food oriented food gatherings. Having ingested the equivelent of an entire Harry & David gift basket, I left the expo with a a nice capitalist stomach-ache.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The End is Near111!!!

Sam's Club, Costco limit rice purchases as prices rise

Does this mean that the boxed rice that has been sitting on my shelf for ages will soon be considered a commodity investment?

Grandmother hypothesis and slow food

In class yesterday we were discussing how to adjust to eating better food. Upper and middle income individuals can usually afford to sacrifice some income in terms of less hours working and more hours cooking or in terms of spending more on food. However, what about people who are barely getting by in the first place?

The solution touted by most people in government programs. Others favor community groups, but I started thinking about this a different way.

Children don't work, but also don't do well at managing to procure and prepare their own food. But who else doesn't typically work? Grandparents!

Students of evolutionary anthropology may have heard of the grandmother hypothesis. Humans are pretty unique for their long postmenopausal lifespans, which means that human women often live far past their reproductive years. A waste of resources on non-reproducing individuals? No, apparently grandmothers in the past played an important role in helping to raise children.

My grandmother helped out my busy mother with food and in many ethnic communities this is still relatively common. Grandma isn't likely to be part of the workforce, so the opportunity cost of having her go to the farmer's market and cook a healthy meal is low. Unfortunately, it's increasingly common to have grandparents live far away from their grandchildren, either in retirement destinations or nursing homes.

This is a tragedy on several levels. There the lost knowledge of the elders, the loss of family bonds, and increased burdens on the parents.

I would say grandmothers are the missing part of a lot of sociological conundrums, from childhood delinquency to healthy diets.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Weepies- Simple Life

I'll kiss you awake, and we'll have time
To know our neighbors all by name
And every star at night.
We'll weave our days together like waves
And particles of light.

I want only this, I want to live
I want to live a simple life.

GMOs: Missing the point

With all this talk about gm crops underperforming, I think people forget that the common GM crops were not modified to increase yields. This is also something the right forgets when it trumpets GM crops as some great solution for this food crisis.

Fundamentally, GM crops are easier to manage. Last week in one of my classes, some of the students from farms were talking about how they used to have the arduous job of "walking the beans": meandering out in the soybean fields in the hot summer sun, looking for weeds to spray. Now they just douse the entire field every once in awhile. They brag about how nice their fields look.

To contrast, managing an intercropped organic field requires intense labor and finely honed knowledge.

Monday, April 21, 2008


Parents push for organic school lunches

"There needs to be a reality check," said Diane Duncan-Goldsmith, director of food services for the Iowa City school district. "Is this something schools can do? Maybe if we want to have $4 or $5 lunches."

Not to sound cavalier, but that sounds cheap to me. I spend most of my income on food these days, but given that it has helped me cure my illnesses, I don't think it's a bad deal. No $12 a week Prilosec or $30 a month asthma medication. People discount health too much. An extra dollar or two for a child's lunch might mean thousands of dollars saved if that child can avoid the health problems that plague typical Americans.

It does leave less money for other things though. I'm sitting here typing wearing a skirt from my freshman year of high school and a shirt from last year's dorm lost and found "abandoned and free" box. I spent spring break working on a farm instead of in Cancun.

If I didn't live in a "slave cell" AKA graduate student housing, I could spent a lot less though. I know a couple that spent less than their usual budget on food when they ate 100% local because they had to stop eating out and going to bars. Keep your own garden and it goes down even more.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Paleo Rules

Michael Pollan's rules about eating from In Defense of Food are a good framework, but ultimately don't take a stand for what humans evolved to eat.

The article by Cordain in Implications of Plio-Pleistocene Hominin Diets for Modern Humans in the anthology Evolution of the Human Diet: The Known, the Unknown, and the Unknowable is academic, but also provides a good "rules" framework.

According to Cordain, the diet we are most evolved to eat is:

  1. Omnivorous (typically, high vegetable content by weight, and high meat content by caloric contribution)
  2. Low in sugar
  3. Proper omega-3: omega-6 ratio... 1:3 is optimal
  4. High in protein
  5. High in micronutrients, mostly from diverse plant foods
  6. Low net acid load...most hunter-gatherer diets are net-base yielding
  7. High potassium to sodium ratio
  8. High in fiber
Unfortunately, this is a diet that is difficult to follow these days. Feedlot meat has an unfavorable fatty acid composition, fish stocks are poisoned, and domestic varieties of plant crops are higher in sugar and lower in fiber. Thankfully, if the need arises, these basic rules allow me some flexibility to adjust my diet with the inclusion of some agrarian foods without sacrificing the major benefits.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

I didn't know...

that those teeny tiny specks were the actual seeds! I bought a some vanilla beans and realized that.

Apparently they are very hard to germinate

Also, in a classic lesson on environmental economics, Florida gives away water to Nestle...for "free"...and it isn't going to turn out well. The state gets to collect some taxes, but actual residents need the water now that Florida is in a drought. Lesson in economics: there is no such thing as free and when you don't charge based on usage, you have problems with overdrawing.

Stevenson, the state's spring expert, says to look at the big picture. "As I see it, a real problem is the public thinks of water as limitless and valueless. ... The less water you pull out of the ground, the better for the spring,'' he said.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Hai, I b takin ur monies

A Bumper Crop of Bureaucracy

ESSEX, N.Y. — When Salim B. Lewis and his wife, Barbara, began building three suburban-style homes in 2006 for the workers on their 1,200-acre organic farm here, they didn’t realize they were wading into a regulatory brawl with the state that apparently set off an interagency dispute...

in March, the Adirondack Park Agency, which has varying degrees of jurisdiction over the nearly 6 million-acre Adirondack Park, assessed a $50,000 civil penalty against the farm, equaling the second-largest fine the state agency had ever imposed.

While the Lewises had obtained local building permits, the park agency said that they failed to obtain permits from it, even though it had not sought permits for a house in three decades. Most farms in the area limit themselves to building mobile homes for migrant workers, and the agency had scant records that it had even required permits for those. Mr. Lewis, a former Wall Street investment executive, is most likely the only farmer in the region wealthy enough to build large, comfortable houses for his workers

Critics of the agency saw it as an odd position to take for a regulatory body with environmental concerns at its core. Should the Lewises sell their farm, as they have threatened to do, a developer could build 30 homes on the property. Local lawmakers called it an example of the park agency overreaching its authority...

Mr. Lewis said he feared that if the park agency was granted jurisdiction over his farm, he would be bombarded with permit requirements. Should that happen, he added, “we’re out of the farming business.”

“No other farmer can fight it,” he said, referring to the agency “All of them have told me you’re the only guy who can fight this.”

Interesting because he can fight it. Most farmers I know that have disputes with the government simply have to go out of business, usually silently, though often marked by an empty booth at the farmer's market.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Milk Substitutes: Walnut Milk

I never understood vegetarians. Compared to meat, milk certainly contributes just as much to the deaths of animals and it's arguably less healthy. I'll drink it if I know the source, but most of the time I avoid it, especially since there aren't many local sources for it around here and bad milk tastes so terrible that it isn't even worth it.

Unfortunately, the substitutes aren't much better. Soy milk is an industrial heavily-processed food and soy itself has some issues1. Rice milk seems to need a lot of sugar to taste acceptable and commercial nut milks tend to contain additives.

So I usually make my own nut milks. Use of nuts for milks dates back at least as far as the middle ages and can be made with simple whole ingredients.

Almond is the most popular nut milk, but I prefer using walnuts because their omega-3:omega-6 ratio is more balanced. There are many ways to make nut milks, but what I do is soak the walnuts for a day to remove the bitter tannins, rinse, and then blend with water with a 1:4 walnut to water ratio. Then I strain through cheesecloth. The remaining pulp can be used in raw vegan recipes. I usually flavor the milk itself with a bit of vanilla and local honey.

It lasts for a few days and certainly tastes a lot better than soy milk or industrial cow's milk, especially when used to make chai or hot chocolate.

1. I do eat fermented soy like miso occasionally, since it definitely has some benefits and fermenting removes most toxins

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Hipster-farmer music: Bon Iver...even my music eats sustainably

Saw Bon Iver yesterday with all Justin Vernon's falsetto folk goodness. Stereogum has a great interview where he talks about eating really locally in Wisconsin:

I hunt for food and for the tradition. I do hunt every year but only during legal seasons. My family is not a hunt-for-sport kind of family...That's what it's mostly about: being outside in the quiet, and catching your meat the only true and honest way there is.

We do our own butchering, yes. We do send scrap meat and other things to a sausage place in Milwaukee, WI for fun stuff, like Cajun Brats or Venison bacon, but we do our own cuts. Last year I paid for a guitar repair with a shoulder roast. Gordy was jazzed, said he plucked some mushrooms out the back of his property and had the best meal of the year.

Scots Wha Hae

Why Some Like it Hot by Gary Nabhan is an interesting book focusing on human microevolutionary adaptations to diet and how eating traditional foods is healthier. Unfortunately, as some reviewers on Amazon point out, he gives Northern Europe the short shift. Undeniably, Northern Europe has churned out some pretty horrifying foods from semla to shortbread.

So does this whole "eat your heritage" thing just not apply to people from Northern Europe? Well, I think people just aren't going back far enough in history. Scottish Food in Season's Larder Page lists all sorts of foods that are really delicious and healthy. Venison, edible seaweed, shallots, kale, plums, tayberries, barley...doesn't sound bad to me. Actually, it sounds very close to the diet that I've found is best for me. Just avoid the prepared foods, which are a relatively recent invention, and the Scottish diet is just as admirable as the traditional Pima diet that Nabhan praises.

Now that offal is trendy, maybe I'll even start eating haggis.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Why I Hate Ethanol

Interview with my environmental econ/international trade professor, which is a great summary of the food vs. fuel situation.

Money quote: "Given the questionable environmental benefits of corn-based ethanol, the large diversion of corn from food/feed that it requires and the limited potential to rely on it to achieve meaningful independence from foreign oil there is a need to rethink our current policy efforts towards promoting its production."

Addendum to Eskimo Post

Addendum to this previous post:

The typical Western diet yields a net acid load estimated to be 50 mEq/d (148). As a result, healthy adults consuming the standard US diet sustain a chronic, low-grade pathogenic metabolic acidosis that worsens with age as kidney function declines (146, 149). Virtually all preagricultural diets were net base yielding because of the absence of cereals and energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods—foods that were introduced during the Neolithic and Industrial Eras and that displaced base-yielding fruit and vegetables (147). Consequently, a net base-producing diet was the norm throughout most of hominin evolution (147). The known health benefits of a net base-yielding diet include preventing and treating osteoporosis (150, 151), age-related muscle wasting (152), calcium kidney stones (153, 154), hypertension (155, 156), and exercise-induced asthma (157) and slow the progression of age- and disease-related chronic renal insufficiency (158).

Cordain, Loren, Eaton, S Boyd, Sebastian, Anthony, Mann, Neil, Lindeberg, Staffan, Watkins, Bruce A, O'Keefe, James H, Brand-Miller, Janette
Origins and evolution of the Western diet: health implications for the 21st century
Am J Clin Nutr 2005 81: 341-354

So, perhaps while many high-protein foods have a high acid load, the net acid load, which can be brought lower by eating fruits and vegetables, is ultimately what matters.

Eskimos and protein

Fanatic Cook: High Prevalence of Osteoporosis Among Alaskan Eskimos

I have the anthology Hunter-Gatherers: An Interdisciplinary Perspective on my desk because I'm doing a project on native diets.

Peoples of the far north, while interesting, aren't terribly relevant to debates about humanity's evolution because, in the scale of human evolutionary history, they haven't been there very long. They prove it's possible to survive on a diet of 90-98% meat, but that doesn't mean it's optimal. Unlike most hunter-gatherers, Eskimos have a high incidence of Osteoporosis.

However, Eskimos who are still following their traditional diet are still a lot healthier than most Americans. Unfortunately, most have now adopted a Westernized diet, which has led to high rates of obesity and diabetes.

It's theorized that the high rates of osteoporosis are caused by eating excessive amount of protein. Most illnesses in Eskimo populations, like diabetes, seem to be the result of civilization, but in this case, even pre-contact skeletons seem to be marred.

That said, skeletons from other societies that ate a diet high in both plant and animal foods are often remarkably healthy. This leads me to wonder if the real problem is the lack of plant foods, rather than the amount of protein.

From Kiple's A Moveable Feast:

...the healthiest ancient skeletal population turned up so far in a study of health and nutrition in the western hemisphere represents individuals living on Brazil’s south coast from about 1000 BCE to 1000 AD. Like so many of their North American counterparts, they enjoyed this good health because they remained hunter-gatherers –actually fishermen and shell fishers – who produced highly visible mounds while consuming a varied and protein-rich diet.

Another good example are the Ache of Paraguay. They eat an impressive amount of animal foods, but also rely on hundreds of plants.

De-Ramenizing in College

My freshman stable was those packaged fake-chicken flavored ramen noodles. When I missed dinner, I ate those, despite the fact that they really provide very little sustenance and tasted abominable. These days, just the smell of them makes me queasy.

So what am I supposed to do when I need a quick meal? Because of bad decisions and just plain stupidity, I live in a graduate housing room that is depressingly kitchenless. I have a microwave, a minifridge, and sink. At first I mostly ate out, but I've gotten a lot better at making the microwave do my bidding.

In last week's NYT, Mark Bittman wrote about microwave cooking. When microwaves first became popular, hundreds of cookbooks for them were published with recipes for everything from cake to steak. People realized pretty quickly that those things don't belong in the microwave and most of those cookbooks are now found in the bargain bin at thrift shops.

As Bittman points out, it does a decent job at steaming vegetables, but I eat most of my vegetables raw. He provides a recipe for a tempting chocolate pudding, but I'm not about to eat that for dinner.

When I first moved in I got the Kafka microwave cookbook, that while outdated, pointed out that fish cooks well, but good fish tends to be expensive in Central Illinois. The best local source of protein around here is eggs. Numerous local farms have free ranging chickens and you can get a dozen for about $1.99 to 4.00 depending on the farm and husbandry methods.

Early attempts at eggs in the microwave were a disaster. Most attempts were hard, discolored, or just plain unappetizing. Finally, I've come up with a decent method, mostly by not subjecting the eggs to much microwaving. I just boil water, drop the egg in, microwave for one more minute...and I have a pretty damn good poached egg.

Lately I've been eating a lot of soba, which are Japanese buckwheat noodles. Decently priced and with a better nutritional profile than most noodles, they can be served either hot or cold. Then cook quickly in the microwave without becoming mushy.

For a meal at home I serve them hot sauced and topped with grated carrots, poached egg and wakame. For a bento to carry to class they are great cold with the same type of sauce. For a sauce I usually use a base of miso and almond butter, mixed with tamari and a little vinegar until I get a nice consistency. Finally, I top with the Spice House Argyle Street Asian Blend. Delicious, and it only takes a few minutes. More protein, vitamins, and minerals than ramen, but with less carbs.

.5 cup organic buckwheat noodles

1.5 tsbp almond butter
.5 tbsp miso
1 tsp raw apple cider vinegar
.5 tbsp raw black sesame tamari

1 raw shredded local carrot or cucumber
1 poached local egg
some seasoning and seaweed

I mix everything together when eating.

These are ingredients I keep in my pantry, but I've made this at friends' apartments using cheaper ingredients like peanut butter instead of almond butter and normal soy sauce and vinegar.

Monday, April 7, 2008


Not to brag or anything, but I read that my EEE PC uses about the same amount of energy as a CFL lightbulb. Pretty impressive. It's also basically made me paperless since it's a lot nicer to carry than a bunch of paper notebooks and textbooks.

Small is beautiful. It uses a simple form of Linux instead of bloated Windows. I'm always finding a new use from a phone alternative (Skype) to an electronic recipe book small enough to not hog my kitchen counter.

I try not to buy new computers too often though because of the impact of manufacturing and later, recycling difficulties. So I like that it doesn't have a lot to break, like the CD drive that broke in my last laptop. Buying an external anything from a Lacie Harddrive for more space or a CD burner is a lot easier than replacing them inside a laptop. Plus an external hard drive is subject to a lot less heat stress, so usually they last a lot longer.

Hay is for horses...

and cows...and it's damn expensive. One of the last small milk operations here is closing down because of ridiculous hay prices combined with weather-related pasture declines. In one of my classes we talked about how some poor horse owners can't cope with the price increases, but since the slaughter ban, it costs more to get rid of a horse than to let it starve. Animal control has been hit with a lot of horse cases.

In that same class, a representative of the Illinois Corn Growers talked about how great ethanol is. However great it might be (it's not as far as I know), the price increases that have resulted from ethanol subsidies hurt small-scale agriculture the most.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

My Diet I

Looking back at my health problems, it's easy to see the domino effect. My senior year of high school was incredibly stressful and I suffered from intense headaches. Unfortunately, I discovered Excedrin Migraine, which had the added bonus of caffeine, so I could stay up late studying headache-free! I continued taking it regularly through my freshman year in college, which is when I discovered another stress-salve: cake and ice cream, which the dormitory provided in abundance.

I still can't believe what I ate back then. Sugary cereal in the morning, dessert with both lunch and dinner, and "late night," an a la cart well-stocked with Haagan Daaz, giant muffins, Little Debbies, and soda. Besides gaining twenty pounds, I noticed a gnawing sensation on my side.

Given my daily use of ibuprofen, my doctor suspected an ulcer and just handed me some Prilosec, a proton pump inhibitor (PPI). PPIs inhibit acid secretion in the stomach and are used to treat disorders of gastric acid production, such as chronic heartburn, as well as ulcers, since the decreased acidity allows for faster healing.

I didn't follow my doctor's advice and instead stopped taking ibuprofen and tried to improve my diet. I became an almost-vegan and learned to love industrial foods like soy milk and Boca burgers. Unfortunately, I didn't get better and the gnawing sensation turning to searing heartburn and a diagnosis of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Eventually I had to go on Prilosec.

It worked, but not perfectly. I could feel the creeping acidity in my stomach and I looked and felt bloated all the time. My middle-aged paunchy doctor confided to me that I shouldn't worry, that PPIs were safe and that he himself expected to be on them for the rest of his life. This just depressed me...I was only twenty, I didn't want to be dependent on these drugs for the rest of my life.

A few months later I started having more sinister symptoms, which my doctor ascribed to IBS, which I had been diagnosed with as a freshman. It wasn't until I collapsed and ended up in the ER that I got a real diagnosis: chronic salmonella. I wonder if the PPI use was related. A study connected PPI use with pneumonia, the authors noting "reduction of gastric acid secretion by acid-suppressive therapy allows pathogen colonization from the upper gastrointestinal tract." PPI use is at an all-time high in America, so is food poisoning. Humans evolved an acidic stomach for a very good reason.

Recovering took a long time and I did a lot of research on diets and health. I found this study about low-carb being good for GERD. At the same time I read Jared Diamond's essay The Worst Mistake In The History Of The Human Race for a class and was struck by the idea that while agriculture has led to some progress, it certainly hasn't made us healthier. I started researching the Paleo diet and adopted a modified version of it for the summer.

My basic premise was to eat mostly paleo foods, with a few "agrarian foods" (a la Weston A. Price), and almost no "industrial foods." I'll write more later about my exact diet, but at the end of the summer almost all my symptoms, from headaches to bloating, were gone. Despite increased consumption of fat, I lost a lot of weight. I'm no longer on any medication and while my diet sometimes includes beer and candy, I always operate on the basic premise of eating primarily foods humans evolved to eat.

It's sad that the standard line on GERD is to avoid fat even though there seems to be little documented connection. I was told my low-fat diet of soy milk and rice was the right one. Macronutrients put food into shallow categories, placing radically different foods like coconut and fried chicken into the "evil" high fat label. If only doctors would stop preaching about macronutrients and instead suggest that patients eat real food.

Friday, April 4, 2008

EU and Small Farms

Old Ways, New Pain for Farms in Poland

But European Union laws are intended for another universe of farming, and Polish farmers say they have left them at a steep disadvantage. If they want to sell their products, European law requires farms to have concrete floors in their barns and special equipment for slaughtering. Hygiene laws prohibit milking cows by hand. As a result, the milk collection stations and tiny slaughterhouses that until a few years ago dotted the Polish countryside have all closed. Small family farming is impossible.

In early March, hundreds of Polish farmers demonstrated outside the office of Prime Minister Donald Tusk, complaining that they were losing money on each hog they raised. Anyway, Mr. Master said, raising pigs for sale was a nonstarter. He is forbidden to slaughter his own pigs, and the nearest abattoir that meets European Union standards is hours away; there are only five in all of Poland.

Depressing. Modern food law is increasingly monolithic, unwilling to accept non-industrial farming. I love how the EU-cronies in the article don't even address this, but just gabber "oh, well, they will just have to get used to not having subsidies." Never mind that Western European small farmers got subsidies to help them adjust to new food safety laws.

The byline is sterility. No risk of infectious disease is acceptable. Never mind all the foods that slowly kill us from diabetes and heart disease or that it's OK for large-scale animal agriculture to overuse the antibiotics we use to fight such infections, thus breeding ever more virulent strains and depleting our medicinal arsenal.

Right now I'm reading The Devil's Picnic by Taras Grescoe. The chapter on raw-milk cheeses is really good. It's interesting because it contrasts the EU and US strategies. The US just bans most raw milk cheeses, the EU institutes HACCP, a food-safety protocol designed to eliminate the risk of food poisoning in an place where it would be devastating -- outer space.

The book quotes Jean Berthaut, of Fromagerie Berthaut, world’s leading producer of Epoisses, the French traditional cheese implicated in a Listeria outbreak that lead to EU regulation “A raw-milk cheese, bought form the farm—there is zero risk involved! We, the French, ultimately decided that completely banning raw-milk cheeses was a bad thing…so we’ve introduced Draconian regulations to guarantee sanitation and reduce risk to a minimal level. It’s an approach that’s a little more thoughtful—and complex, and courageous—than total prohibition”

But then the book goes on to note that the initial outbreak was from pasteurized cheese made by a factory (not an artisan) that was simply fraudulent and Taras goes on to explore how the regulations have consolidated cheesemaking and shut down a lot of small producers...who were never to blame.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

The Place You Love is Gone

I really wanted to love The Place You Love is Gone by Melissa Holbrook Pierson. Unfortunately, her often-obtuse writing style makes for a difficult read, but it did get me thinking about my hometown.

Marietta, Georgia is one of Atlanta’s largest suburbs. The Marietta I knew growing up is not the Marietta that exists today. The population grew by 40% during my childhood and continues to grow. Two lane roads are now highways.

I often think of the farms that disappeared before my very eyes, replaced by sterile subdivisions. Clearcuts were a common sight, stark because of the red clay soil. Most of the people that live in Marietta now were born somewhere else, they aren’t losing anything.

But then I remember that my family was alien too. They moved to Marietta from Miami before I was born. The house I grew up in was built to house Lockheed workers in the fifties. Presumably, it too displaced a forest or a farm.

Yesterday a Navajo professor spoke to one of my classes. I asked him about the problem of making people care in this age of displacement. Talk about coal mines tearing people from their homes is less effective when very few people seem to have a true home that they love and care about. The professor pondered and then said : indigenization.

It’s the concept of making people local again. Thinking about it, the local food movement is an indigenization movement and a very powerful one at that. I think about the huge differences in farmers markets across the state. Evanston has wild plums and purslane, but Urbana has farmstead goat cheese and fresh ripe blackberries. Each place has unique foods that you can’t get elsewhere.

In terms of where I grew up, my neighborhood was old enough that nature had reclaimed parts of it. Neglected lawns sprouted with wild strawberries, blueberries, and onions. Honeysuckle crept over fences. Snapping turtles made their homes in ditches. In the case of my neighborhood this was largely an unconscious encroachment, resisted by certain residents who religiously applied sod and pesticides.

But I wonder if this sort of thing could become a conscious movement to live in a locality instead of adapting a locality to the American Lawn Ideal. Edible Estates and similar Food Not Lawns and Backyard Habitat projects are a good example of this. The resistance comes from people who never question the tyranny of the grass monocultures they so assiduously cultivate.

A problem, I think, is schooling. I went to a school that focused on nature and then I was homeschooled, so I spent a lot of time experiencing native Georgia. My memories of home are microcosmic—of tiny tree sprouts, dew drops on spider webs, and bumblebees on marigolds. Unfortunately, this is unusual. I worked at a school camp one summer and their play grounds consisted of cement, woodchips, and a mowed lawn. No wonder no one in the area was bothered by industrially uniform green lawns.

Last night I remembered the wild onions, the way they smelled when you pulled them from the red clay in early spring. I remember that this was in the suburbs, that we shouldn’t give up when a farm is torn down to make room for houses, because anywhere there is soil, plants are eager to be welcomed.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Ye Olde Farming

It makes me furious when I see conservative op-eds that portray organic as being some sort of 16th-century throwback that is so inefficient that it requires us to tear up all our forests to grow one bushel of hay. Certainly, many organic farmers look towards traditional agricultural methods, but at ag schools there are many scientists who devote their research to new methods that are both organic and efficient. Organic isn't ye old farming, it's a different way of doing things.

Which is why I'm happy when I see studies like the new UW study profiled at Ars Technica which shows that organic crops can compete with their conventional counterparts quite well.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Silent Spring

Now that spring is here, we take it for granted that the birds’ cheerful songs will fill the air when our apple trees blossom. But each year, as we continue to demand out-of-season fruits and vegetables, we ensure that fewer and fewer songbirds will return.

I've already given up out-of-season tomatoes. It's pretty easy given that the typical tomato tastes like water flavored water. But ultimately, I wonder if this is something we should hold consumers accountable for? I used to think consumer-education could be a solution, but now I feel like the vast majority of people are going to chow down on a factory-farmed McDonald's burger topped with an imported tomato no matter how many times Pollan is on the bestseller list.

Maybe I'm being pessimistic and a bad economics student, but I think import restrictions, which hold foreign farmers to our standards, are the unfortunate answer here.

Also: interesting econ aside

The presentation of a pricing policy clearly matters—something disconcerting to economists, who can translate all the pricing into mathematical equations and make the presentation go away. It seems to be acceptable to charge a higher markup for fair-trade coffee, organic bread, or lower-emissions gasoline. It is not acceptable for businesses to say, "We are such fans of exploitative coffee, pesticide-laced loaves, and dirtier gas that we're willing to discount them and accept a lower profit margin." Underneath the gloss, the pricing policies are, nevertheless, identical.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

But it helps developing countries...

the common refrain in arguments about GMOs. Marion Nestle links to a report that blames Africa's problems on cultural elitists who favor heirloom and local over "science-based agriculture."

Um, no. Most of Africa's problems are political and GMO varieties of most of Africa's cash crops don't even exist. Furthermore, those bad ol' cultural elites are a ripe market for specialty varieties of those cash crops, like chocolate, which isn't about to be grown locally anytime soon.

The local food crowd in the US is such a small proportion of the population that blaming them for much is a little laughable. I don't have access to the full version of the article, but I hope it at least mention the EU, the real reason African countries are afraid to grow GMOs, and ag subsidies in rich countries like the US, which depress prices in Africa.

Maybe GMOs can help Africa, but let's not blame the wrong people. I am personally on the fence here. The Boston Globe had an interesting article trying to convince the sustainable ag crowd to join the GMO party.

Maybe GMOs can reduce pesticide use, but they can also preclude other forms of agriculture because of gene flow. If that could be reduced or eliminated, I would be a lot more likely to support them.


At the Chipotle here there is a sign touting their "naturally raised chicken and pork". It says something like "Our Meat Doesn't Require a Prescription" and then goes on to say "no antibiotics" etc.

Did they stop to think of the logical implication? Does the rest of their meat require a prescription? Hmm.

I hear they are shifting towards offering naturally raised beef though, which makes sense because their pork supplier, Niman Ranch, has gotten into the beef business.

They also have teamed up with Joel Salatin, to source from his sustainable farm in Charlottesville. Whether or not this will lead to sourcing locally in other places remains to be seen, but the story highlights some obstacles to doing so ranging from a non-uniform product to food-safety equipment.

Which leads me to another thing I've learned in my work: if you want to source locally, you need someone dedicated to the project. You can't just send in an order form for 400 carrots, you need to be able to work with a lot of farmers with varied methods of production and often you need enough knowledge to help each farmer provide the product you need.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Salmon Virus Indicts Chile’s Fishing Methods

Also not tasty: farmed salmon. In fact, I think farmed salmon tastes absolutely putrid. Besides, that, every time you eat farmed salmon, you are probably contributing to the decline of wild stocks. I guess the question is: as consumers do we want expensive wild salmon occasionally or cheap farmed salmon all the time? Unfortunately, just all most animal-foods, the answer for most consumers seems to be "cheap! we don't care where it comes from!"

Eating polycultural

Dianne of the Migraineur embarks on "Omnivory Month," with the goal of eating a diverse diet

I love this project because most Americans get 72.1 of their calories primarily from dairy products, cereals, refined sugars, refined vegetable oils, and alcohol. Humans evolved to eat a diverse diet, mainly because a diverse diet is far more likely the cover all the nutritional bases than one reliant on standard American staples. I also have to wonder if food allergies have something to do with our excessive reliance on a few staple crops.

Also, I must say that farmer's market and CSAs are a great way to diversify your diet. At the market you can find all kinds of varieties of food that might not fit into the industrial food system well and most farmers will gladly give you tips on how to use each one. Last summer I wrote down all the new things I consumed. The list included red currants, kohlrabi, Japanese pumpkin, hubbard squash, Lebanese zucchini, perpetual spinach, misato radishes, parsnips, and thai eggplant. A CSA is probably even better because you end up with things that might not stand out at the market, such as the plain brown candy-roaster squash which opens up into bright-orange sweet flesh.

Thursday, March 27, 2008


FDA Warns of Salmonella Risk with Cantaloupes from Agropecuaria Montelibano: The agency detains products from the Honduran manufacturer

Tasty...or not. Personally, I'm waiting to buy melons until they are actually in season here and this is just about the salmonella. It's also because, honestly, imported melons aren't that tasty anyway. If I'm going to eat something from thousands of miles away, it might as well be tasty, like chocolate. I have something of an economic equation in my head where the deliciousness of a product must outweigh the impacts of shipping it in from far away.

The melons here in early fall are incredibly tasty and beautiful, providing you pick the right one, which is an art to itself. This lovely yellow melon was from Moore Family Farms and was the perfect size for me.

Hipster-farmer music: Andrew Bird and CAFOs

I've seen Andrew Bird in concert three times. Yes, I like him that much. For the uninformed, Andrew Bird creates some incredible tunes using his violin and his own whistling. He also has a farm where he records much of his music.

No surprise then that his newsletter today linked to Stop the Mega Dairy, a campaign to stop a California (gosh do I hate on California ag enough?)- style megadairy from coming to Nora, IL. If you live in Illinois you should speak up about this.

Also, you should speak up about the proposed rule change which would allow CAFOs exemptions from air emissions reporting requirements under the Superfund and Community Right-to-Know laws.

Livewire: How did you come up with the title The Mysterious Production of Eggs?

Andrew: Well, it came from an old magic catalog. It's been in my head for years and kind of took on multiple meanings when I lived, for a few years, out in my barn. I had 26 chickens and I would go get their eggs for omelets in the morning and make coffee - I would write these songs. It's pretty amazing to hold this egg that just came out of the body of this animal and then go about cooking it and eating it. People just aren't used to having that direct connection.

First Song a song of Galway Kinnell's poem

Then it was dusk in Illinois, the small boy
After an afternoon of carting dung
Hung on the rail fence, a sapped thing
Weary to crying. Dark was growing tall
And he began to hear the pond frogs all
Calling on his ear with what seemed their joy.

Soon their sound was pleasant for a boy
Listening in the smoky dusk and the nightfall
Of Illinois, and from the fields two small
Boys came bearing cornstalk violins
And they rubbed the cornstalk bows with resins
And the three sat there scraping of their joy.

It was now fine music the frogs and the boys
Did in the towering Illinois twilight make
And into dark in spite of a shoulder’s ache
A boy’s hunched body loved out of a stalk
The first song of his happiness, and the song woke
His heart to the darkness and into the sadness of joy.

Why I should stay home today...

Yesterday, just as I was starting to feel the effects of an oncoming cold, my seminar had a lecture about behavioral responses to infections. Mice, lizards, and many other animals also feel tired, antisocial, and lose their appetites. I knew this, having worked with wild animals, but I didn't know that If you somehow override their desire to rest and eat less, mortality rates skyrocket. Also, if you suppress fever, it increases the duration of the infection.

The fasting aspect is particularly interesting given recent studies that show that intermittent fasting has many benefits, similar to those of more torturous daily calorie-restriction regimes. I guess the moral is: follow your instincts, since they have hundreds of thousands of years of evolution behind them. That means letting mild fevers burn and not buying into the whole 3-meals-a-day if you don't feel like it.

Unfortunately, I feel too lethargic to look up actually journal articles.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Garden Aesthetics

Josh Viertel, associate director of The Yale Sustainable Food Project

Irradiation as a band-aid

Can't say I wasn't expecting it: irradiation, coming to bagged spinach near you. Don't worry, the House of Representatives claims it's just as delicious as the regular bland industrially-grown spinach.

Also, a really fantastic paper on the leafy green problem, as well as other subjects, that I found recently: Safe at any scale? Food scares, food regulation, and scaled alternatives

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Future of Food documentary features Mexico as a guardian of traditional corn varieties, but it looks like (thanks to ethanol) GMO corn is on its way

Monday, March 24, 2008

Government and food in Europe

Heirloom seed company in trouble thanks to backwards laws
For those of you who don't know Kokopelli, they're a French-based seedsaver organisation who maintain 2500 varieties of rare and endangered vegetables and run several charitable initiatives in developing countries. Their work is vital and indefatiguable. Unfortunately it's also illegal, due to the preposterously backward seed laws in Europe, and this has now resulted in them being clobbered with a €35,000 fine. The gist of it is that Kokopelli were hounded through the courts by a commercial seed company, Baumaux (shame and damnation on them) because their catalogue of thousands of unique heirloom vegetables gave them an "unfair trading advantage". I won't subject you to the language that came spouting out of me when I read that but it's a truly insidious example of what happens when big business gets waaaaaay too much control of our garden seeds and our food chain. And it sounds a danger signal for the future of biodiversity in Europe.

I'm not really a libertarian, but I think this is a good example of how you have to be careful about giving the government too much control over food.

Do California greens really count as vegetarian?

CSI: Critter Salad

Mechanical harvesting= mangled mouse-thing in your salad.

Reminds me of this great article, Tainted Greens, which is about the atrocity that is industrial California agriculture. In the name of food safety, the presence of wildlife is being actively discouraged. Yes, that means tearing up habitat. It's true that some wildlife harbor E. coli O157, but they didn't get it magically. The real source has and always will be concentrated animal-feeding operations.

Money quote: "We don't like to see animals in a field of lettuce. We don't think people like the idea"- Jim Lugg, senior food safety scientist with Fresh Express.

Support a farm that integrates with the natural landscape instead of paving it over with monoculture. Last week I spent time at Anathoth Community Farm in Wisconsin. The fields where produce was grown were surrounded by a beautiful healthy north-woods forest. I was impressed.

Small farms are not the source of produce-related outbreaks, perfectly illustrated by the fact that when the produce industry instituted strict self-regulation in 2007, there were no more outbreaks. Hmmm.

Here in Central Illinois, early spinach is already available. You do have to wash it yourself, but that's a small price to pay.

Like a man, the farm is headed
for the woods. the wild
is already veined in it
everywhere, its thriving.
To love these things one did not
intend to is to be a friend
to the beginning and the end.
- Wendell Berry, Work Song

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Reading List: Mad Sheep by Linda Faillace

Mad Sheep: The True Story Behind the USDA's War on a Family Farm by Linda Faillace

The USDA is charged with both regulating and promoting US agriculture. Obviously, these goals conflict and the end result is that the USDA often functions as a powerful guardian of industrial agricultural interests.

If they made an X-files about agriculture, it would resemble Mad Sheep. Scary government agents in sunglasses torment this family and seize their sheep without giving them much chance to defend themselves. It seems that this action was less about a disease than about protecting the interests of the cattle industry. Even if these sheep did harbor a disease, the USDA's actions are like shooting a mouse with a machine gun.

Subsidies V. Local Food

My Forbidden Fruits (and Vegetables)

Farmer finds out that growing vegetables on government-subsidized farms has a high price. I guess the government would rather have you chug high-fructose corn syrup than eat a juicy tomato. Not having subsidies is an obvious solution, but even politically palatable solutions like farm flex, which would allow farmers to grow produce without being penalized, have gone nowhere. I'm glad to see this in the NYT. Rural lobbies obviously have the biggest voice in the Farm Bill debates, but this illustrates perfectly why urban arugula-munching consumers should care too.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Bad Ag = Fewer Tasty Fish

Thanks at least partially to fertilizer runoff and idiotic dams, salmon stocks are down dramatically. Farmer's can't steal most of their inputs, but often they are allowed to dump their outputs without paying any sort of cost.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Your Fun Corporate Welfare News

The government is unfortunately charged with both protecting agriculture and regulating it, two missions that often conflict. Lately I've been researching the new proposed Leafy Greens legislation, a response to all the food poisoning outbreaks tied to leafy greens. I'm not really a fan of e. coli, but the Western Growers Association guidelines that will probably be the foundation for any new regulations are awfully focused on blaming wildlife.

Yes, Bambi and friends do carry E. coli O157:H7, but it's very unlikely it originated in their populations. From what I've read, 1% of wildlife carry strains of e.coli that are pathogenic to humans, but the prevalence in cattle ranges from 2.6% to 55%(!!). In wildlife, E.coli is most common in deer that live near...cattle ranches. Futhermore, cattle are more likely to shed the disease in feces, spreading it into the environment. Studies have shown that it's much worse in cattle fed corn (I.E. feedlot cattle), rather then grass, which is what ruminants evolved to eat.

But no, we wouldn't want to have to blame CAFOs. Instead, the regulations encourage tearing up vegetation that harbors wildlife, including vegetated buffers, which are known to filter out pathogens quite effectively. My prediction? Sterile fields aren't going to prevent outbreaks. In fact, sterile soil makes it easier for pathogenic bacteria to move in. If these proposed guidelines become mandatory they will hurt small producers, who are not the source of these outbreaks. I'm more than a little bothered that the industry that is to blame is the one writing the rules.

Personally, no more bagged greens from giant California industrial farms for me. I'm just glad that local growers (who oppose these guidelines and benefited greatly from the public's skepticism of bagged greens after the 2006 outbreak) are going to be selling spinach again soon as the weather gets warmer.

Also fun Spraying a questionable pesticide all over the San Franciso urban area . Why? To protect California agriculture from an invasive moth (thanks globalism!). It's probable that this pesticide, like most pesticides, is low-risk, but that doesn't mean no-risk. In an urban area "rare" side effects are going to manifest themselves because there are so many people in the spray area. Maybe this spraying is a reasonable response to the threat, but the state's response to concerns has been insensitive at best.

Finally, more Yellowstone buffalo sent to slaughter for OMG not obeying park boundaries. I guess bison can't read maps? Maybe they should build flashing signs? Why kill them for leaving? The very rare chance that they might spread a cattle disease called brucellosis, a disease that originated in domesticated livestock. Thankfully the state helps out their friends, the wealthy ranchers, with a program to kill the trespassing buffalo off. Opponents include animal rights activists and Native Americans, who oppose the slaughter for religious reasons.